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Robbie Basho:
The Beatific Lost Guitarist

When folk guitarist extraordinaire Robbie Basho performed at Cambridge's Club Passim years ago, he was widely known as one of a trinity of players (with John Fahey and Leo Kottke) who revolutionized folk-guitar picking. How times change. Whereas Fahey and Kottke have maintained cult followings, Basho, who died in obscurity a decade ago, is largely forgotten. So the Tacoma label, now owned by Fantasy Records, deserves fanfares for issuing Guitar Soli, the first CD of Basho's music, though his LPs on various labels still surface in used-record stores.

Fahey and Kottke invented guitar styles that were revisions of old country-blues approaches; Basho created a guitar style largely based upon Asian models. He tuned his acoustic six- and 12-string guitars in peculiar ways, echoing the tunings of Indian sitars or Japanese kotos. He strummed and picked original instrumentals that borrowed from both Western symphonic forms and Eastern ragas. Undergirding his style was an oddball sense of spiritual mission. He saw his music as a theosophical and poetic expression of what would largely become vulgarized into new-age muzak.

Guitar Soli's 11 tunes -- 10 instrumentals and one song -- have titles like "Seal of the Blue Lotus" and "Sansara in Sweetness After Sandstorm." They average six minutes in length; often they're moody explorations of musical textures you wouldn't expect to hear from any acoustic guitar. Bass drone notes abound. High notes from Basho's 12-string cascade like so many sliding sitar notes. Even a cursory listen to this CD will have you pondering just how otherworldly a master can make a steel-stringed guitar sound.

This compilation draws upon Basho's first albums in the '60s, Seal of the Blue Lotus/Guitar Soli, The Grail and the Lotus, and Basho Sings/Volume 3. Much needs to be said about the last, though compiler Bill Belmont was timid in including only one example of Basho's singing. Basho sang like John McCormack, the famous Irish tenor, meaning that he was vibrato-laden and stentorian. There was nothing casual about his singing. He'd belt his original lyrics, words that sounded like a hallucinatory mix of Kahlil Gibran and whatever exotic aphorism you found in your last fortune cookie. Yet every once in a while, you can hear the very oddness of his singing as being in synch with his Far Eastern guitar. Such an exotically complex folk-guitar style couldn't really be counterpointed by a vocal stance as loosely informal as, say, James Taylor's.

I visited Basho at his Berkeley apartment months before his death. In a hovel filled with unreleased tapes stacked to the ceiling, he proceeded to tell me, cryptically, about his quasi-shamanic new songs. I think he knew he was dying, even as he struggled to finish new projects. For all the Far Eastern musical modes and the walls plastered with Hindu art, I thought of a line by poet William Carlos Williams: "the pure products of America go crazy." Basho's pure and crazy genius deserves a widespread hearing at last.

-- Norman Weinstein