What Robbie Basho carried on with his pals John Fahey and Ed Denson in the 60s was a pseudo-guitar revolution quite detached from the rock’n’roll uprising of the time. Seemingly aloof to that kind of rabid culture, they did also forge a new way of interacting with the instrument: whereas the rockers found in blues the seed of electricity, the Takoma guys reduced to steel string guitars the complexity of avantgardish classical music, achieving their very own stream of “folk”. Their fingers eventually reached out to other cultural sensitivities: in particular Basho who, most of all, created an unique, style-binding musical endeavor in which the folk roots converged with not only European echoes, but also the music of native Americans and that of India. And eventually, as opposed to some of his genre companions, he sang. And very joyfully, I might add.
He was also snobbish enough as to steal Matsuo Basho’s name and make it his own. The fragments of still life and the passing of the seasons, the soul’s brief glimpses into the surrounding reality, which populate Basho’s haikus might seem alien to Robbie’s mostly overlong compositions, but the sense of instant poignancy and of natural reflection flows neatly through his guitar. And as the poet did achieve an timeless form of art, the musician reached, with his introspective excursions and ragas, the sort of soundscapes that have no age whatsoever. But, what of it now?
Basho’s influence is evident in the spiritual sons of American primitivism, such as James Blackshaw or the late Jack Rose; but also among broader styles of sound, specifically experimental wankery (that of the Bishop brothers and their band the Sun City Girls – of course) and freak folk. This tribute album is composed mainly of the former, but there’s also brief glimpses into more varied territory. The collection, as a result, is irregular: in terms of rhythm, but also (slightly) quality-wise. The opener is Steffen Basho-Junghans, who, as Robbie before him, incorporated the haiku master’s name into his, as if there wasn’t enough confusion. Since then Stefan has worked hard to imitate closely of Basho (the guitarist, not the poet). His oeuvre, though unremarkable, coolly enough starts where Robbie’s ended, so it’s sexy to imagine him as some sort of reincarnation. The guitarists hired for this album, besides Basho v 2.0, are top notch. There’s Glenn Jones, whose band Cul de Sac collaborated with Fahey in the 90s and whose own solo recordings are not to be overseen. The track he presents, “1337 Shattuck Avenue, Apartment D”, snatched off his last album, Barbeque Bob in Fishtown, is truly a work from the heart. Rousing. From the other side of the pond comes young Irish Cian Nugent, whose original composition is meandering, slow and a little boring. The (mandatory?) exotic flavor is brought on by Rahim Alhaj from Iraq, who whips out his oud to offer us “Baghdad AlThania”. And then there’s the more psychedelic band additions: the least accessible is probably Espers’ Helena Espvall’s lo-fi cello drone, “Travessa Do Cabral”. Creepy stuff. Arborea’s cover “Blue Crystal Fire” is downbeat and ominous but, as Fern Knight’s take on “Song for the Queen”, goes on for too long and ends up dragging. Unjustifiably tiring. The clear winner among the “sung” pieces is Meg Baird’s delicate “Moving Up a Ways”. Basho-Junghans wraps up the tribute with the most cascading and riveting of tracks: “Rocky Mountain Variations”, obviously inspired by Robbie’s record Visions of the Country. Junghans’ rendition captures awfully well the dynamics of Basho, eventually reaching a climatic bliss. It also defines the level of attention which is required to grasp the genius of American primitivism. Here, Junghans has successfully become the perfect Basho clone. Congrats.
The justification of tribute albums is something unclear. They fall into two main categories: those which actually re-work the (supposed) genius of the honored artist in a new and exciting way; and those that just make you feel like listening to the original. I’m afraid this release fits in this second group. It doesn’t have much balls, inasmuch as it niftly presents the various aspects of Basho’s music and its influences on different parts of the globe and genres in a polite, orderly fashion. As a manual, it is intriguing. As a record, it is definitely hit or miss, even when the artists’ enthusiasm is evident. Jones’ and Junghan’s in particular are excellent contributions and will satisfy anyone with a faheyan urge. Hopefully this collective yearning of Basho will spread the interest towards the mustached finger master
I didn’t die!
the end of a journey
is autumn nightfall
[Matsuo Basho echoing the current sentiments of Robbie Basho, as channeled by Stefan Basho-Junghans]
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