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Robbie Basho - Bonn Ist Supreme

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Artist: Robbie Basho

Album: Bonn Ist Supreme

Label: Bo'Weavil

Review date: Apr. 7, 2008

In between songs, Robbie Basho comes back to earth. His soaring acoustic guitar symphonies, which once ripped through the quiet music hall, have quieted. The final harmonies slowly dissolve and are met by rising applause. He approaches the audience with an almost reverent sense of calm and goodwill, speaking softly in their native German without concern for his overtly shallow knowledge of the dialect. Basho displays an innate understanding of musical performance – acting as a vessel for shared experience without ego or callousness. He leads a communal give and take in which the listener and musician are both equal participants. Bonn Ist Supreme (subtitled Robbie Basho Live at the Kulturforum, Bonn, Germany, November 24, 1980) is the first proper release of a Basho concert and it captures the artist in an environment that seems more in tune with his unique musical vision than any other before it.

Over the course of his 20-year career, Robbie Basho ambitiously sought to expand the accepted vocabulary of the steel string acoustic guitar. His compositional style was a wide-ranging pastiche that brazenly incorporated elements of Eastern raga, Western classicism, traditional English folk and American blues. In terms of his ’60s contemporaries, Basho fell somewhere between John Fahey and Sandy Bull in terms of musical pedigree, but achieved his own idiosyncratic approach by incorporating Eastern religious themes and a deeply emotive style of finger-picking into his pieces.

Basho die-hards have always complained about his peripheral status in comparison to these two luminaries (three, if you include Leo Kottke), but with hindsight, the ignorance of critics seems logical. Bull was the great cultural synthesizer and Fahey was the quirky, academic genius. As intimate and strange as their music gets – and guitar music doesn’t get much stranger than Bull’s E Pluribus Unim – there is still a pervasive sense that these guys always knew what they were doing. Basho’s music never offered that type of comfort. His pieces can be jarring and immediate, or rambling and ambitious, but they don’t have that seminal, focused quality commonly associated with unassailable innovation. Maybe it’s the way he seems to clip notes during a complex run, or the lack of shame with which he exhibits his booming baritone, or the – according to Fahey – “very effeminate” way in which he carried himself, but whatever the reason, Basho was a true “outsider” in a genre seemingly filled with them.

Bonn Ist Supreme documents a full concert recorded in Bonn, Germany, during Basho’s 1980 European tour. The sound quality is grainy, taken from second-generation tapes, but the performance makes for a rich and rewarding listen. Most of the pieces come from two of Basho’s long out of print, later-period albums — Visions of the Country and Art of the Acoustic Steel String Guitar 6 & 12. Brief, glistening folk numbers are crammed comfortably alongside some of his more experimental works, most notably the early masterpiece “The Grail and the Lotus.”

The opening folk-based trio of songs, “Redwood Ramble,” “Fandango,” and “Easter” makes for a warm and inviting starting point to the concert. “Fandango” is cut in the form of a traditional American folk spiritual, with Basho singing and stomping along wildly. By drawing upon an American communal song style, he is intentionally inviting the audience to share in his performance – opening them up to the more expansive and challenging pieces that will come later. Fahey and Bull never had this kind of understanding with the crowd – they played their tunes and the listeners were forced to come to them. On Bonn Ist Supreme, Basho is extending himself to the observers, imploring them to follow the musical path he has prepared.

“Cathedrals et Fleur de Lis” marks the more dissonant, classical-based segment of the show. Like many of his compositions, it opens with a slow and deliberate set of chords, but rapidly accelerates into a spidery-picked, trance-like passage. Basho plays it much more rapidly – and recklessly – than the studio version released on 1969’s Venus in Cancer. His style on stage is reminiscent of a whirling dervish, in which Basho picks the guitar rapidly, inducing a powerful wall of transcendent harmonics and chords. There is a spinning, spiraling quality to his performance that precisely evokes the holy Sufi dance – which makes sense, considering Basho’s deep ties with the religion.

Basho seems at home here, carrying out his life’s work and directly communicating with others through his music. As a document, Bonn Ist Supreme allows a modern listener to better understand this essential component of Robbie Basho’s character and attain a more accurate, well-rounded view of the artist. He was driven to make music with purpose and substance, “I spent years on the road singing folk songs that had no meaning,” said Basho in a 1974 interview, “Then it dawned on me – music is supposed to say something, music is supposed to do something.”

By Matthew Kivel

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