Song of the Avatars box set examined
by Richie Unterberger
The unnervingly eclectic, mysterious acoustic guitar maestro Robbie Basho released more than a dozen albums before his 1986 death without attracting anything larger than a small if avid cult following. More than half a dozen live albums were posthumously issued, and nearly an hour of early-'70's outtakes appeared in early 2020 on Real Gone's Songs of the Great Mystery. Could there really be that much more worth hearing? And is there enough of an audience to justify the release of a five-disc set of previously unreleased Basho tapes?
Yes and yes, according to the indie label chief and filmmaker who've produced the new five-CD set Song of the Avatars: The Lost Master Tapes. Near the end of the fine documentary Voice of the Eagle: The Enigma of Robbie Basho, director Liam Barker is shown seven boxes of reel-to-reel tapes, much of which the guitarist never released. None were dated, though at least the tracks had titles. But through determined excavation and restoration, he and Tompkins Square Records' Josh Rosenthal assembled more than five hours of music from the material, spanning the mid-1960's to the mid-1980's--basically, Basho's whole career.
Similar in mood if not exact style to John Fahey (for whose Takoma label he recorded in his early career), guitarist (and occasional pianist) Robbie Basho constructed haunting music with unusual minor-keyed melodies, edgy strumming, and a general stormy-cloud aura. As much as Fahey was a cult artist, Basho's cult was smaller; according to Voice of the Eagle, his Takoma LP's only sold a few hundred copies on their initial release. His oft-downcast music isn't for everyone, and his shaking-leaf vocals definitely aren't for everyone. But he counted some renowned guitar virtuosos among his devotees, including Glenn Jones and Henry Kaiser, both of whom contribute to the liner notes for Song of the Avatars.
Basho sometimes concentrated on instrumentals, but sings more often than usual in this set, with a delivery memorably described by fan Pete Townshend (again in Voice of the Eagle) as "a cross between a kind of a cantor in a synagogue, the mullah calling from the tower for prayers in Islam, and a kind of a street singer. But also an opera star. But it's almost impossible to emulate his voice, because it was so extraordinary and is so unique." Townshend admired his guitar work too, of course, and echoes of some of the avant-folk playing of sorts of Fahey and Basho can be heard in some of the Who man's underrated acoustic playing.
Not only is Basho's music not for everyone, but not all of this might even be for Basho fans. There are quite a few vocals, which are less popular with most listeners than his instrumentals owing to their strident vibrato. There are songs on which he plays ghostly piano rather than guitar. "Mehera's Lament" is entirely whistled, not sung. There's even a sixteen-minute cantata with choral vocals.
Yet if you do like Basho, however, the bulk servings on Song of the Avatars have a few strong points in their favor. The tapes might not have found release, but they're nearly or on par with much of his official output. They doesn't simply feature alternate versions of songs that have already been heard, although there are occasional passages that surfaced in other work. And there's a lot of stylistic variety, from the sort of raga-avant-folk for which he's most known to devotional music and even a bit of (in what are likely some of the earliest selections) blues. Experts who contribute to the set's liner notes were able to make some educated guesses as to when at least some of the material was recorded, though it will never be able to pin down exact sources.
Five-disc sets of unreleased tapes by idiosyncratic cult folkies who aren't even too widely known in the underground don't materialize easily, and Song of the Avatars has a genesis dating back nearly fifteen years. "The whole odyssey has been serendipitous," says Josh Rosenthal, whose Tompkins Square label has issued lots of recordings by twenty-first century acoustic guitar masters, as well as rarities by artists ranging from Tim Buckley and Midwest gospel acts to Alaskan singer-songwriter Mossy Kilcher.
"Liam Barker learned first about Robbie Basho from the reissue that I did of [Basho's 1969 LP] Venus in Cancer in 2006. Then he went on this fact-finding mission, did all this research, contacted all the people he could find who knew Robbie. Made the movie; it's an outstanding movie, especially for somebody so young [who] hasn't made a ton of films. It's such a great portrait of Robbie, somebody who's very mysterious. We didn't really know all that stuff about him laid out for us in such a way as Liam did.
"So in the course of his research, one of the things that he discovered was this cache of tapes. Everyone around Robbie knew they existed. There are home recordings, stuff he recorded at [Berkeley, California Pacifica radio station] KPFA probably, different settings. Basically, the tapes were like moldering at this religious organization.
"So he acquired the rights to the tapes through this religious organization that Robbie was a part of, and we have contacted and cleared the release of this stuff through the estate, through Robbie's relatives. The tapes were in various types of shape, which is why some of the recordings are better than others. What you hear actually is the result of painstaking work by him and the engineer in the UK to get the tapes to sound presentable."
As Barker elaborates, "During the production of the film there was a concatenation of discoveries, including Basho's 12-string guitar, an unpublished songbook, and his entire personal collection of master recordings. The tapes were the hardest element to track down--when I did eventually find them, the setting in which they were stored did not augur well. Fortunately, the fact that they had remained sealed in boxes over the decades must have contributed to the fact that so many of them have stood the test of time so well (miraculously even)."
When tapes are found in these circumstances, usually there's quite a bit of culling before they're prepared for release, whether due to variable sound quality, overlap with previously issued material, or commercial considerations. Not so with Song of the Avatars. "The boxed set contains the majority of the previously unpublished studio and private recordings," according to Barker. "I thought that this material would be best presented together as a whole, rather than as a series of separate releases.
"I then compiled the material in an estimated chronology, with some programmatic license. In a few instances, it was difficult to discern whether significantly compromised audio should warrant inclusion. Ultimately, almost nothing was omitted from the release on those grounds, as I felt that the material (either in terms of the quality of the music or its historic value) was so strong."
Remarkably, few of these songs even contained elements that resurfaced on Basho's albums. "Glenn Jones and Robbie Dawson, in the notes in particular, were able to do their own detective work and kind of piece things together like a puzzle," says Rosenthal. "Like, 'Okay, this refrain is from this song which is on this album in this era.' I just don't have that type of ear where I'd say, 'Oh yeah, there's that from that.'"
Even for discography buffs determined to track down what came from where, the most important question listeners might have is: how does this stack up compared to Basho's other work? And what might it reveal that's not so evident from his numerous other recordings?
"You get to see his transformation sort of unfolding, and where his interests were," feels Rosenthal. "In the beginning, you can tell his interest in folk, it's holding him back in a way. It almost seems like he's moving on from it so quickly after that first disc. Then [it] shows all his other interests, like the Eastern music and Indian music, and then into the Native American spiritual music that really defined the last ten or fifteen years of his career.
"So I think it's almost like an alternative overview of his work. I'm not gonna say it's as essential as some of his other recordings. But it just kind of runs like along parallel lines."
It's not exactly like Basho's other recordings, as Barker points out. "Song of the Avatars treats us to some of Basho's ventures into territory not previously charted on record, including ballet, musical theatre, minstrelsy, and cantata. It also provides a window into his process--we are privy to mistakes made during recordings and communications to engineers--and the fact that he transposed or transfigured certain musical ideas and song titles over the years."
Unlike many collections of outtakes and non-studio recordings, some of it's superior to some of what Basho did release. "Some have said that Basho wasn't the best judge of his own work," observes Barker. "Even when taking this (and his early death) into account, the fact that he never released some of this material is confounding."
Were there major surprises, both Barker and Rosenthal knowing Basho's output as well as they do? "There's a few drawn-out, longer guitar ragas," responds Rosenthal, those being the outings for which Basho's probably most known and popular. "But a lot of the work is vocal. I guess I was surprised by that.
"I mean for me, the high point of his work is the Takoma Records"--meaning Robbie's first four albums, issued between 1965 and 1967, which were primarily acclaimed for their guitar instrumentals. "There's Basho Sings, which is a whole album of vocals. But when I think of Robbie, I just think of the instrumental stuff. So I guess [much of the music on Song of the Avatars] shows you where he was as an artist. His vocals were very important, and he wasn't just a guitarist. He was much more than that. I think the set really demonstrates that."
Many listeners, like Rosenthal, think first of Basho as an instrumental guitarist. Some, it's fair to say, are put off by his eccentric vocals, or at least find them an acquired taste. They were nonetheless certainly a substantial part of his repertoire, as this new collection reflects, and not incidental experiments. And many Basho fans do admire his vocals as well as his instrumental skills. "I think that Basho's voice was, at times, the fullest expression of his art," believes Barker. He goes on to acknowledge, "The fact that it was so inimitable will of course result in some people being alienated by it."
Basho will spark inevitable comparisons with John Fahey, and not only because Robbie recorded for John's label at the outset of his career. Both drew on folk influences and, usually with acoustic guitar, created something new and almost avant-garde by adding all sorts of ingredients from outside the traditional folk world, as well as much of their own unusual personalities. Fahey is still a far more familiar name than Basho. What most differentiates the pair, I ask the producers?
For Rosenthal, in Basho he finds a "spiritual quality, incorporating music from different worlds, different countries. Japanese, certainly. Indian, Native American. Fahey did that as well, but his style is much more rooted in Piedmont blues, and also takes cues from Charles Ives, Western music, and twentieth century classical composers. I don't feel that as much with Robbie. I think it was more looking at spiritual music from different cultures."
Amplifies Barker, "Both Basho and Fahey were clearly devoted to their own intensely personal visions of music. In terms of disparities between them, I would say that Basho's influences were more exotic, his bent for the non-commercial more exacting, and his approach more nakedly sincere. That Basho seemed to be less adept at self-promotion, and that his ability to tour was circumscribed by his religious commitments, may have contributed to the fact that he was less commercially successful and is to this day less widely known. Of course the voice is a big one too."
Basho's cult might have grown in the twenty-first century, certainly if one is to judge by the appearance of so many archive recordings, even before Song of the Avatars. What might this new and extensive trawl through the vault add to his legacy? "I hope that people can take away the breadth of his influences," responds Rosenthal. "I can't really think of too many artists who share that. There are such disparate influences coming into his music, and [Basho] kind of like reinterpreting, making it his own."
"It is my hope that the film, and the boxed set, will go some way toward a reappraisal of Basho's music that will enable him to, albeit posthumously, receive more of the appreciation and respect that he desired and deserved," declares Barker. "I think that we have already seen serious signs of that, and who knows what the future will hold."
The Basho box set is available from Tompkins Square Records.
Selections from the box set are also available from Bandcamp
Also see Richie Unterberger's website
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