Soft Machine Legacy
Trading Boundaries, Sheffield Green
Saturday 26th March 2016
Into the velvety countryside darkness, down narrow winding roads, deep damp green leaves swishing past, round twisty frondy bends and under cathedral-roof tree branches arching high overhead, the car snakes and undulates forward, with each mile civilisation is retreating further behind, and I am on my way to Trading Boundaries, on the edges of the Sheffield Park forest in Sussex, an outpost for exclusive live music performances, where tickets to events featuring the cream of popular music legend, often are as rare as precious jewels.
I have heard that this nightclub-cum-restaurant metamorphoses by day into an unlikely blend of alter-ego The Elephant Café, an Aladdin’s Cave furniture emporium and the home gallery of Lewes-based internationally renowned artist Roger Dean. As a venue for live music, the place has a reputation for exclusivity, with a roster of artists as eclectic as its interior design.
The evening mist descends. In the gloom I can just make out the fantastically gnarled and twisted trunk of one of the biggest broadest trees I’ve ever seen. The knots in its trunk stare like eyes. It looks like one of the Ents or Tree-Spirits in Lord of the Rings, about to come alive, reach out ectoplasmic fingers and walk earth-shakingly towards the car. Driving for what has seemed like hours in the the darkness curves round me like a chilly cloak. It seems I am lost. But then something twinkles blue-white at the edge of my vision, and a chain of fairy lights twisted through the twigs of another glade of trees, sparkles in the misty air. A square-roofed country house, with lights on in every window, looms into view. It seems we’re here.
The main draw for me of this evening is John Etheridge, whom I know only from publicity stills as a virtuoso guitarist of glacially regal appearance, long curly hair, high cheekbones, an artist of Olympian status, a festival headliner, a big hitter, one of the “guv’nors”. And, isn’t he “one of ours”? Doesn’t he belong to the jazz world? What is he doing, then, with a bunch of hippy-dippy types connected mostly with pop music’s distant past?
Anyway, I’m not sure I trust prog. It seems an uneasy bedfellow with the music I know. What little I have heard of it so far confuses me. I’m not sure I even know what it really is. Even the big oak-washed Gothic wooden doors of “the Boundaries” don’t reassure me as I walk up to them. Even the name, The Soft Machine, was derived from a science-fantasy novel by William Burroughs. It all seems rather far-fetched. I wonder if the music is something that, like one of the shabby-chic distressed painted pieces of furniture around me, has become so much a hybrid of different musical cultures, that it may have somehow been mongrelised and disappeared up itself. And while Brighton’s burgeoning nu-prog scene seems open to influences from jazz players, as it is to a wide range of other musical influences, try asking a group of jazz musicians to improvise in a prog vein, and unless they are familiar with the groundbreaking, sparky fusion guitar work of Allan Holdsworth, another influential member of the Soft Machine lineup, you may be met with questioning looks.
But suddenly the oak door swings open in front of me. I count one labyrinth passage, dimly lit with carved multicoloured Moorish lanterns, then two. I walk a third circle, and then I round a corner. A whoosh of guitar sound swings out, in long sustained notes, as clear as a church bell. There is a scattering of expectant applause. I step into a low, candle-lit room with people seated at tables on three different levels. Waiters glide from table to table, but every pair of eyes in the room is trained on the stage, where the keys of a tenor saxophone shift and gleam under soft stage lights. Its insistent, mellifluous tones insinuate themselves on the ear from first listening. Deftly wielded by Theo Travis, who has played extensively with space-rock outfit Gong and has toured with David Gilmour’s band, the sax takes a central role in this evening’s performance, both on numbers like “ Chloe and the Piano”, composed by founder Soft Machine member, John Rattlidge, the band’s original organist, and on newer compositions from the latest album “Burden of Proof”, such as “Voyage to Seven”. Here, Travis’ sax is passionately to the fore, and it sounds poignantly different on each song, by turns melancholy, questioning, bright and yearning.
As the set progresses Etheridge’s guitar begins to acquire an organ- like tone to his guitar playing. Much of the set seems to be characterised by organ sounds, but think J. S. Bach, or even John Paul Jones, rather than Larry Goldings or JTQ.
In between songs. Etheridge tells stories about the various incarnations of the band.