Along with Pink Floyd, Soft Machine were one of the most imaginative bands to emerge from the acid-drenched UFO club scene in the late Sixties. The music Soft Machine created at their peak (1971) was incredibly rewarding, the most complex of their career.
Live At Henie Onstad Art Centre 1971 is an amazing document of this period. The two concerts Soft Machine played at the Norwegian museum/concert hall in February 1971 were recorded on reel-to-reel tape, then promptly filed away in the library. They remained there for 28 years, until somebody stumbled upon them and realized that the tapes might have some worth to the outside world.
For fans of the band, this is an enormous find. The concert contains nearly all the material that appeared on the group’s two finest albums, Third and Fourth. While Soft Machine’s LP titles may not have been very imaginative, their music certainly was.
They are basically the only band I know of who were able to navigate the distance from psychedelia to jazz and make it work. Groups such as The Grateful Dead and Pink Floyd were doing the improvisational freak-out thing onstage in 1967, but both had grown into much different bands by 1971. Soft Machine developed into an improv powerhouse, with a take on the burgeoning fusion movement like no other.
In fact, in the very first set of the concert, Soft Machine sound closer to “Pharoah’s Dance” from Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew than anything else. And the energy never lets up. While I have been a fan of this band for years, nothing in their studio repertoire comes close to the visceral strength they display in this live setting.
The two performances are presented as one continuous track on each of the two CDs. The first clocks in at 39:20, the second at 55:18. The notes list the individual songs, but they flow together as one evolving, large-scale composition in concert, and fast-forwarding to a particular favorite is hardly the way to listen to the shows.