Danny Riley reviews a new documentary about the American guitarist and mystic, Robbie Basho
Forget Gram Parsons and Gene Clark – Robbie Basho is the true voice of Cosmic Americana.
It is puzzling why the why the legacy of this unparalleled innovator of the acoustic guitar has fared so poorly in comparison to his label boss – the more popular and fashionable John Fahey. Whilst Fahey continues to project an inscrutably cool, sardonic air through his steel-string subversions of American folk-blues, Basho comes to us all open-hearted joy and sincere, religious conviction. I’d argue it is our culture’s general unease with all of these latter qualities that has acted to the detriment of the reach of his fandom. He was a guitarist of unparalleled innovation who alchemically combined elements of Indian, East Asian, British and various other folk musics to create near-symphonic odes to the American West and the human soul. In its valiant attempt and ultimate failure to get right to the heart of this baffling and beguiling musician, Liam Barker’s documentary Voice Of The Eagle: The Enigma Of Robbie Basho will do a lot to redress this critical imbalance.
Formed mainly from the video testimonials of the few people that knew Basho at all – his adopted family, a smattering of fellow musicians, the students he taught guitar and his religious associates – the film reveals details of his life and lifestyle unknown to the vast proportion of his followers. Perhaps tellingly it is the acquaintances he met through religious avenues, namely the members of the California sect Sufi Reoriented, that feature most prominently, illustrating in itself Basho’s deep and abiding commitment to spiritual enquiry. Conversely, Basho’s status as an outlier guitarist is made self-evident in the interviews with his contemporary musicians. There are some rather questionable comments from Pete Townshend – American Primitive enthusiast and also a follower of Basho’s spiritual leader Meher Baba (“I’m very influenced by Basho’s playing, you can hear it in my work”), whilst countercultural icon Country Joe MacDonald seem barely able to remember anything about his meetings with Basho. It seems that temporal distance was required for his genius to be truly appreciated, as is seen in the words of more recent musicians – Glenn Jones comes off as a veritable Basho scholar, whilst Steffen Basho-Junghans swears by some form of metaphysical connection with the late guitarist.