SOFT MACHINE : 1966 - 2018

Soft Machine : One of the greatest UK avant/jazz-rock bands of all time.

Their work, from their earliest performances as a psychedelic band who were contemporaries of, and shared stages with, Syd Barrett's Pink Floyd and the Jimi Hendrix Experience, all the way to being one of Europe's best known 'fusion' groups, has influenced several generations of bands, and continues to be name-checked by today's hip experimentalists.

Whilst the line-up of Soft Machine may have changed many times since the heady days of the late 1960’s, the band’s spirit of musical adventure, and the ease with which it freely avoids being pigeon holed and can move from powerful progressive jazz fusion to atmospheric psychedelia to free improvised jazz-rock to ambient loop music continues to make it both unique and totally contemporary.

Soft Machine 2019

After our long drive through Indiana, which apparently has been voted the most boring state in the US, through the wind and the rain, we finally arrived in Chicago. We were not staying in a hotel as we usually do, but in a large apartment with five bedrooms, a living room, a kitchen and a couple of bathrooms. It was a nice and spacious apartment though the towels and linen could have been cleaner. It was a bit like a band living together or being students just for a day. Washing up, sharing bathrooms, hearing what the others are doing, cooking communal breakfasts and all of that stuff. In fact Roy took charge in the kitchen and shopped and cooked. His breakfasts were great! It was OK, but quite different and a little bit on top of each other. I think we were all quite pleased when it was back to hotels the next day.

We were playing at Reggie’s club, at the Progtober fest. On the evening we arrived we hung out for a bit at the festival where we heard some great bands including Dinosaur Exhibit with the legendary violinist Jerry Goodman from the Mahavishnu Orchestra and also a cool trio called Soften the Glare, with a talented guitarist Bon Lozaga and a very dynamic and watchable bass player Ryan Martinie. Unfortunately we did not get to hear Paul Wertico’s band (which I subsequently heard was very good) or Neal Morse who was playing at midnight.

The following day there was plenty of time before soundcheck so the four of us walked to the shore of Lake Michigan which was not far from our apartment. Lake Michigan is a huge lake and as you looked out there was water as far as the eye could see and even large waves hitting the shore. It really does feel like the sea, except you don’t get sea air as it is freshwater. Later that morning, John and I went for a walk and a light lunch and then I carried on for a long walk around the Downtown Hyde Park area of Chicago and further down the shore of Lake Michigan. One thing I noticed was how high the street numbers go. In the UK, if house numbers reach 250, that is high, yet in the USA because of the grid system they go so much higher. I passed a house numbered 5100. After my 14,715 steps (my phone counted them)) I went back to the apartment to relax before going to the gig.

I did have time to listen to some music (phone, YouTube, Bluetooth speaker) and I chose two of my most favourite jazz albums ever.
Stan Getz - Sweet Rain
Miles Davis - In a Silent Way

The sound engineer at the Iridium had been playing In A Silent Way and it had reminded me just how much I love that album - Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea, Zawinul, John McLaughlin, Tony Williams etc etc. Great tunes, vibe, groove, melodies, solos - everything. Sweet Rain has Getz with Chick Corea, Ron Carter and Grady Tate on drums. It was recorded on two days in March 1967 and has wonderful tunes and perfect playing. It is light, playful, swinging, melodic, utterly beautiful and still sounds so fresh it could have been recorded yesterday.

As a teenager I had had a TDK C90 cassette with these albums on, one on each side. They had been recorded from records I had borrowed from Birmingham Central Record Library which was fantastic and I often visited it after school. I used to go and take out so many records it was a major part of my musical education. What a wonderful resource and Aladdin’s Cave of aural magic that place was for me. I must have worn that cassette out with the number of times I used to listen to it

The Progtober fest at Reggie’s is a great festival with about 40 bands involved over a weekend. We were introduced to various friends of Leonardo’s and some hardcore fans. There was also lots of signing of albums which we are always happy to do. Just before we played we heard the set which was a Tribute to Bruford / Holdsworth playing the entire One of a Kind album by Bruford. They were totally ‘on it’ and played with skill, gusto, groove and joy. We were all particularly impressed with the bass guitarist Tim Seisser who was fantastic. In fact Roy, our bass player, was so impressed he felt a little intimidated going onstage straight after him. However we said to him that yes, Tim is a great bass player, but Roy IS ROY BABBINGTON!

There were some great, excited and super appreciative fans there and the festival organisers were fantastic too. We were introduced onstage by Raymond Benson, who is a big Soft Machine fan but also the world’s authority on James Bond, having written several books about him authorised by Ian Fleming’s estate , screenplays, and articles in the New York Times and elsewhere. I think we played well and then we went back to the apartment driven in the coolest hippy bus by the driver Serge who was hilarious and a great guy. Then bed.

Next morning was a drive to Milwaukee where we to play Shank Hall (of Spinal Tap fame). I remembered the venue from my Gong tour of 2000. It is a cool venue and well laid out. After a quick curry a few doors down it was soundcheck and gig time. We put John’s lovely ballad Broken Hill back in the set and Gary steamed it up a bit in the tune of Hidden Details which was great. It was a cool gig and we all enjoyed it a lot. Just one more gig to go on this leg of the US tour before back to Blighty.

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