Last night Soft Machine played a gig at The Flowerpot in Derby. The band has appeared in these pages twice before but, for anyone unfamiliar with them, there’s an excellent biography (if a band can have a biography) on Spotify. Suffice it to say that the current Soft Machine line-up includes three guys who joined the band in the early- and mid-1970s and contributed to some of their best albums. Although no members of “the classic quartet” from the very early seventies remain, John Marshall, Roy Babbington, John Etheridge and ‘new boy’ Theo Travis have every right to carry the Soft Machine name into the 2010s.
The Flowerpot is a very British real ale pub in the centre of the city of Derby. Tucked away at the back there’s a dark, windowless space with a bar, a small stage and a low ceiling. It’s the sort of place a hobbit raver might choose for one of his wilder parties. The pub itself and the band room behind it were bustling but not too overcrowded when my mate and I arrived. Neither of us had been to this venue before but the clientele seemed strangely familiar. Was that Frodo Baggins and his faithful friend Sam Gamgee over there? No, only a couple of ageing hippies there for a night of music and nostalgia, just like the rest of the audience – Crotchety Man and his appropriately bearded pal included.
There were no seats in the back room so we took up a position fairly near the stage and waited. Unusually, in fact uniquely in my gigging experience, the band came on a few minutes early. I’d like to say they were greeted enthusiastically but that would be a slight exaggeration; ‘warmly’ would be a better description. It was as if the audience could sense the potential for a great night but expected rather less. Perhaps the sight of Nic France instead of John Marshall on the drums had dampened their spirits. Or perhaps the fans just knew that we were about to hear four old men playing mostly old tunes for guys and gals old enough to have heard it all before.
John Etheridge introduced his fellow band members and explained that John Marshall couldn’t be there because he wasn’t well. Then, without further ado, they launched into Bundles and a palpable sense of pleasure and relief swept through the audience. They knew it might not turn out to be an extraordinary night but we wouldn’t be going home disappointed. And so it proved to be, the audience grooving to the rhythms and applauding each track with genuine appreciation of the music and musicianship.
The set included tracks from almost every studio album from 1970 onwards by Soft Machine and Soft Machine Legacy: Third (Facelift), Fourth (Kings and Queens), Six (Gesolreut, Chloe and the Pirates), Bundles (Bundles, Hazard Profile, The Man Who Waved at Trains), Softs (Aubade, The Tale of Taliesin, Song of Aeolus), Soft Machine Legacy (Grape Hound), Steam (In the Back Room), Burden of Proof (Voyage Beyond Seven) and one new song whose title I don’t remember. For the curious I’ve collected the album versions of those tracks on a public Spotify playlist: Softs @ The Flowerpot.
In the end, this was a satisfying but not particularly memorable occasion. It was like going to see a tribute band that plays all the old favourites but never quite manages to capture the fire and sparkle of the original. Or, to use another analogy, it was like two-day old bread – good for toast but not so good for sandwiches. But what’s wrong with that? I like a bit of toast from time to time. Especially with marmalade … Mind you, if it had turned out that Soft Machine were just the support for Marmalade I really would have been disappointed.