They were called psychedelic rock, avant-rock, progressive rock, and jazz-fusion, but they always seemed to exceed the boundaries set for them by critics and fans. They had shared the stage with the Jimi Hendrix Experience and with Syd Barrett’s incarnation of Pink Floyd. They moved in the same orbits as King Crimson and Yes. But not quite any of them.
When I was describing the band’s sound to Nicole, I said, “Think of King Crimson but not exactly that, either.”
Finally, I was going to see the band whose albums and (now) CDs had loaded my shelves and record cases for decades. Better still, I was going to see them with Nicole. She makes even the best things better.
I’d become well-acquainted with the owner, promoter, manager of MoonJune records, Leonardo Pavkovic. It was he told me that Soft Machine was going to be in concert at the Turf Club in St. Paul, Minnesota. Ah, the Turf Club. It’s called “The best remnant of the 40s.” Onstage, lead guitarist John Etheridge would that he was the best remnant of the 40s.
Leonardo and I had tried to meet face-to-face a couple of years ago when he was promoting the band, Stick Men. Just before that concert, I took ill and had to miss the show and to finally meet Leonardo. This time was going to be different.
Leonardo is an incredible man. Born in Bosnia in 1962, he studied literature and is himself a poet. He has actually published two volumes of original poetry. But the guy loves music. And music-lovers love him. Especially me.
In 2000, he established MoonJune Management and Booking which became MoonJune Records. Where did the name MoonJune come from? It came from the phrase “Moon in June” in Robert Wyatt’s tune on the third album by…wait for it…Soft Machine. That album was released in 1970. Obviously, Soft Machine has been near and dear to Leonardo for a long, long time.
MoonJune Records is a one-man shop. He has taken bands to over 50 countries and has put on well over 2000 concerts. All by himself. Not kidding.
Somewhere around 2011, Leonardo read some stuff and I had written and asked if I would review some of the albums that MoonJune was releasing. I liked Leonardo’s sense of humor and his dedication to his artists. I had no idea what working with him would be like.
He began sending me CDs of the most incredible artists I had ever heard in my life. He discovered (for the West) artists and bands from Indonesia, Italy, Serbia, and everywhere one cares to name. One of my favorite “new” bands had the great name of I Know You Well, Miss Clara.
Then Leonardo started putting together artists in the most amazing combinations, introducing unbelievable artists to appear on albums together. Every time I get a new CD from Leonardo, I immediately look to see who is performing on the album and I am never disappointed.
So, we were not only going to hear Soft Machine but we were going to get to meet Leonardo Pavkovic.
We got to the club ahead of time, so that we would have plenty of time to see Leonardo. We were going to get to hang with him after the show.
When we walked in, a guy was near the front door and had a curious look about him. I don’t mean that he looked odd but that he was looking at me curiously. I thought the myself, “Wow, that guy looks just like Beledo. But what would he be doing in St. Paul?” Beledo is another one of the MoonJune artists, a brilliant composer and a fantastic guitarist and keyboardist. We walked past each other with a smile.
Nicole and I sat down and ordered something to drink. I texted Leonardo and said, “We are here!” He responded, “I am not there. I am in a hospital in Milwaukee with a bacterial infection. Look for Beledo.”
Are you kidding me? Come to find out, our guy had cellulitis and was kept in Milwaukee.
Then I told Nicole, “Oh, wow! That was Beledo!” I hoped that maybe he was the opening act for Soft Machine.
In a few minutes, he came walking by and I called his name. He turned and he greeted us warmly, giving Nicole the Spanish double-kiss. He explained what had happened to Leonardo and, sure enough, he was going to open for Soft Machine.
I texted Leonardo again, all of us saddened that we would have to wait yet again. “We’ll keep trying,” we said.
Then Beledo came onstage and treated the house to beautiful Spanish guitar and beautiful keyboards. He couldn’t keep himself from singing, either.
When Beledo described that Leonardo couldn’t be there, the crowd gave an audible groan. Since when does a manager/record-label owner/promoter ever get known or, even more, loved and admired? When it’s Leonardo Pavkovic—the guy who loves and cares for his artists and the people who love music.
During Soft Machine’s performance, John Etheridge announced that the Downbeat magazine Reader’s Poll had just been released. The number one record label was Blue Note Records, that venerable and ancient Jazz label. Number Two was ECM, another label that has given the world amazing albums—like Keith Jarrett—since 1969.
The third record label listed in the Reader’s Poll was MoonJune Records. In 2017, it was fourth. The year before, it was fifth.
A one-man label was ranked third in the world for producing albums that everyone wants to hear.
Some call Gary Husband “the greatest drummer in the world” and it is certainly a discussion worth having. At any rate, his performance with Soft Machine in the latter part of the US tour was nothing short of astonishing.
None of the original members of Soft Machine are in the band today but the band’s legacy is kept very much alive by guitarist and onstage spokesperson John Etheridge (who joined in 1976), bassist Roy Babbington (1973), sax/flute man Theo Travis (2006) and the missing John Marshall (1971).
The last studio album from Soft Machine was 37 years ago, 1981’s The Land of Cockayne. In 1984, it looked like Soft Machine was done…and I had missed them, I feared.
In 2004, four long-time members started touring again after 20 years under the band name Soft Machine Legacy. It was during this period that they signed with MoonJune Records and Leonardo Pavkovic. And they only looked back to pick some sweet music from the highwater days of 1967-78. With the passing of Elton Dean and Hugh Hopper, the band moved forward with the youngest member Theo Travis and their great bassist Babbington. As they say, it is 3/5 of the 1975-77 line-up of greats.
In 2015, they dropped the Legacy part of the name and returned in strength as Soft Machine, playing music of early composers like Mike Ratledge and Hugh Hopper. Just in September of 2018, they released Hidden Details with band members Etheridge, Travis, Babbington, and Marshall.
This was the show Nicole and I got to see…for me, 45 years in the making and—Good Lord—I was not disappointed.
It wasn’t a concert of rattling around old numbers from their salad days nor was it simply a live casting of their new album. It was a beautiful mix of old and new. Etheridge and Travis do most of the writing these days but they included great stuff from Ratledge and Hopper.
John Etheridge gave sage advice to young women that, if they want to stay young-looking, “Just be seen with old geezers like us! Then people will say, ‘What is that young thing doing with an old guy like him!’”
They were fun. They were skilled. They were exactly what I had hoped they would be.
They moved from lyrical and melodic to furious and exacting.
They were worth the 45-year wait.
~Travis Rogers, Jr. is The Jazz Owl