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.
The notes I referred to are actually contained on a third disc, which is in the CD-ROM format. There is a wealth of information contained here about virtually every aspect of the recording. There is also an extensive photo gallery, featuring pictures of not only the band, but of the venue itself.
The name Soft Machine was taken from the 1961 William Burroughs book, which was the first of his to use the “cut-up” method of writing. It was a format the quartet appreciated very much, and one which is used in many of the extended compositions that appear on Live At Henie Onstad Centre 1971. This recording also represents the last tour with drummer Robert Wyatt, who was to leave the band and form Matching Mole soon afterward.
History and context aside though, this live recording stands as an incredible 90+ minute excursion into some of the best electronic jazz ever. The early Seventies were a time of great experimentation, and Soft Machine were at the forefront in every way. The wonder is that what they laid down those nights nearly 30 years ago sounds as fresh as ever. Live At Henie Onstad Centre 1971 is much more of a jazz record than anything else. Fans of what Miles, Mahavishnu, and even Santana were doing at the time should greatly appreciate this music. It must have been thrilling to sit in the audience that night, but this rescued recording is a nice consolation for the rest of us.