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Robbie Basho: A Poorly Dressed (Takoma) Guitarist

Being lumped into the whole Takoma Records thing alongside John Fahey and Leo Kottke, before he was singing like a goose farts didn’t seem to bother Robbie Basho too much. Granted, the various approaches to steel six strings among just the three folks mentioned here is pretty wide. There’s obviously a droning, Eastern element to much of the work. And more than anything else, it seems that the approach to composition each took was aimed at making their collective instrument seen as one fit for classically styled performances. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem that they succeeded in that last endeavor – Kottke does, though, play at hillbilly opera houses and stages reserved for choirs in addition to some more sedate settings.

But it was Basho, more than anyone else, who inserted an overt Eastern spiritual thing into his guitar playing. Yeah, Fahey wasn’t a stranger to ragas or droning on a weird blues for fifteen minutes. But hearing Basho accompanied by a flutist on The Falconer's Arm Vol. 1 during “Tassajara” makes the case better than words can. Shifting tempo from contemplative finger picking to quick step interplay with that woodwind instrument makes for a surprisingly lively nine minutes. It all comes off a bit cheese ball, Eastern mysticism in the hands of Westerners has a way of doing that. The playing Basho and his accompanist turn in, though, makes a case for the guitarist deserving a bump in visibility.

While the whole folk and psych thing has seemed to have calmed down a bit, “Pavan Hindustan” could have been slotted anywhere alongside offerings from Six Organs of Admittance or any other neu age forager. Basho, perhaps more than Fahey, who at the time The Falconer's Arm was released still engaged with American folklore as much as anything else, can be credited for turning folks on to the lamely spiritual.

Basho’s death at forty-five, apparently a weird accident, truncated a career which could have pushed the form forward. Incorporating new instruments could have achieved the spiritual swell Basho desired. His singing, which is graciously absent from The Falconer’s Arm, didn’t do the trick. But just like Fahey would sooner or later incorporate a drum, Basho might have added any number of acoustic instruments to better jive with the expression of centuries’ old philosophy. Dying before fully realizing his mission was either an acknowledgement of Basho’s achievement, being called up too early, or a cruel joke pointing out to listeners that nothing really maters.