Band on the Wall, Manchester
31st March 2016
At some point in the evening it was pointed out to me that John Etheridge was the doppelganger for comedian Micky Flanagan, true. However, in hindsight it has to be said that John tells better jokes, albeit in a self deprecating fashion.
So the bad news was that John Marshall couldn’t make the gig due to illness, which meant that the exceptional Mark Mondesir sat in on drums, and was stunning, his broad grin and enthusiasm pushing the band. The line-up was completed by the aforementioned Mr Etheridge on guitar, Roy Babbington on bass (he played on two Bert Weedon albums apparently) and Theo Travis on reeds, flute and keyboards.
But before we get into that, Thursday night in Manc is on the cusp of Spring. The steel industry is collapsing in South Wales and Cameroon refuses to come home to sort it out, Ronnie Corbett has left this mortal coil, England are doing quite well at T20 Cricket and the tram from Eccles to Manchester (via Media City, oh so pretty) is on time. After ten months of personal grim the world seems as precariously balanced, as it always is, between the nice and not so nice.
Walking up Oldham Street from Piccadilly things seem as dour as usual. Hustlers hustling, people rushing home, pavements dirty and cracked, the fading decadence of the shop fronts. Quite ironic that the formerly “sticky floored” Gullivers is now the smartest place on the street. I meet Mr Moss there for a quick pint and a quicker catch up on record label business, we amble round to the BOTW and, once inside, we both meet separate old acquaintances. Soft Machine appear to attract “men of a certain age”.
Sound wise the BOTW remains the best live venue in Manchester. A packed room is served up a heady stew of new , newish and old Softs material with music from Ratledge and Jenkings mixing with newer stuff from Bundles onward. What stays in the mind is the effortless performance from four consummate musicians, there is no grandstanding or frippery here, this is four exceptional players delivering.
The first set is notable for an impressive “Chloe and the Pirates” as well as some pretty intense riffing from the band. At times you could have been listening to Van Der Graaf Generator, or King Crimson (some osmosis from Travis’ time with Fripp and Co no doubt). The revelation was the use of free jazz in the set, after impossibly long opening riffs the band leap off into strange sonic areas and explore tonal colours and spaces that are quite breathtaking.
I have to admit that my sciatica got the best of me and for the second set, due to the lack of seating spaces in the concert room, we decamped to the bar, where we could watch the gig via the remote feed and sip some excellent Pinot Grigio. The second hour provided more the same, a potted history of the Softs, and the more recent “legacy” material. Whilst it seemed the first set was more oriented to Etheridge, Travis seemed to take centre stage for the greater part of the second set.
All in all a remarkable performance of quality jazz/rock fusion for players at the top of their game.