Live at the Baked Potato

Soft Machine

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Live at the Baked Potato Review

by Thom Jurek

Despite the fact that Soft Machine Legacy included no original members, three -- guitarist John Etheridge, bassist Roy Babbington, and drummer John Marshall -- have all been in various incarnations of the band since the '70s, while reed and woodwind man Theo Travis is a generation younger and joined in 2006. To celebrate the release of their wonderfully realized 50th anniversary outing Hidden Details -- their first studio album in 37 years -- Soft Machine Legacy dropped the last word from their name for their half-centennial U.S. and European tours.

Live at the Baked Potato was cut at the famed Los Angeles venue in February of 2019. The 12-tune set includes six jams from Hidden Details by Etheridge, Marshall, and Travis, and four from former members Karl Jenkins, Hugh Hopper, and Mike Ratledge. The latter's ubiquitous "Out-Bloody-Rageous" commences as a layered, mysterious, two-and-a-half-minute intro with everybody playing keyboards before kicking into gear via Babbington's propulsive bassline and Etheridge's choppy jazz chords. Travis' saxophone follows the serpentine tune through hard fusion, jazz funk, and contrapuntal vamping, establishing a groove that just doesn't quit. Etheridge and Babbington launch into the instantly recognizable riff for Jenkins' "Hazard Profile," with Travis joining on the turnaround chorus. Gloriously assertive, a dynamic drop introduces Etheridge, who unwinds a jagged solo that multiplies in intensity with every chorus atop a breakbeat shuffle from Marshall and a formidable piano break from Travis. The playing is so inspired, at seven minutes in it still feels abbreviated. Hopper's "Kings and Queens" is introduced by a languid, haunting flute solo from Travis, as Babbington and Marshall whisper in the margin. The improvisation is deeply communicative and subtle. It creates a small gateway intro to Jenkins' quintessential jazz rocker "The Tale of Taliesin" that unfurls a power jam with killer breaks from Etheridge, Travis' Rhodes piano, and savage cymbal riding from Marshall, all as Babbington pushes blunted Anglo-funk underneath. Etheridge evokes the blues on the short ballad "Heart Off Guard" as his bandmates sensitively frame his melody. It's followed by the sparsely beautiful "Broken Hill" that, despite being another ballad, is a fine showcase for the guitarist's skillful harmonic arpeggiations. Travis' "Fourteen Hour Dream" gets things back to choogling as a rumbling prog rock jam with gorgeous twinned lines between him and Etheridge. While Ratledge's "The Man Who Waved at Trains" begins with brooding reflection, Etheridge and Travis meld blues and jazz counterpoint with sharp interplay between Marshall and Babbington adding ballast. The final two cuts are both Travis': "Life on Bridges" melds spiky prog, fusion, and frenzied group improv, while closer "Hidden Details" is gorgeous, vamped-up fusion rubbing up against post-bop. Where Hidden Details reveals Soft Machine's return to creative recording in studio, Live at the Baked Potato showcases a renewed, inventive, and inspiring live attraction, capable of incendiary improvisation, hard-grooving rock and funk, syncopated prog, and sophisticated modal and post-bop jazz. Impeccably recorded, Live at the Baked Potato stands with the best Soft Machine live outings of any vintage.

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