Robbie Basho was always the starry-eyed brother in the midst of American Primitivism.
Robbie Basho was always the starry-eyed brother in the midst of American Primitivism. All of the acolytes of this strange folk-music offshoot worshiped Nature with their guitars and looked to the far past for reference, but most did it with a somber reverence. Not so for Basho! Though he was a rigorous student, diving into Indian, Iranian, Native American and Japanese music, he found euphoria in all of them. His song was never sour and he seemed to be the smiling, cheery face welcoming curious listeners into this odd genre. Live in Forli, Italy 1982 is, at times, an appropriately upbeat introduction to Basho. It could be seen as a greatest hits collection of sorts, showing off Basho’s wide verity of influences and abilities. But the album finds itself unbalanced and unfocused as often as it hits pay dirt with Basho’s sterling ballads.
With such evocative titles as “The Grail and the Lotus,” most of these songs seem ready to score an Ingmar Bergman film. Basho does impart great weight into them. Problem is that Basho’s best songs (“Rocky Mountain Raga”) instilled larger senses of wonder rather than terror. His sense of the sublime was more focused on being in awe of Mother Earth, rather than trembling in fear. But Live in Forli seems unable to make up its mind on that point, often wading into darker waters but unable to revel in their dusky sensibilities. “Pavan India” has a few strangely textured detours, breaking from its usual brisk pace and sunny demeanor that take away from the overall energy. Same goes for “The Grail and the Lotus,” Basho’s best death meditation, which lasts too long for its own good, nearly hitting the 10-minute mark. There are also slight recording issues here and there. “Cathedral et Fleur de Lis” is the album at its most shimmering, with glistening streams of plucked guitar notes cascading down, but the lower end comes off as rubbery, nearly compressed to an uncomfortable degree. Brief moments like this dot the album, breaking from Basho’s world-building.
But the album’s largest issue comes with the interludes. Three of them, along with a smattering of chatter in the main songs, derail the album from time to time. Perhaps the inability of Basho’s nature-child persona to engage in effective stage banter isn’t surprising, particularly when on foreign shores. He mumbles his way though small Italian and German phrases; it’s awkward and occasionally charming, but ultimately it distracts from the main event. Basho, and indeed most of American Primitivism, is built on a sense of human erasure. Only the trees and the squirrels now stand and only your ears remain to capture them all.
Thankfully, much of Live in Forli delivers on that promise. “California Raga” proves to be a steadfast counterpoint to the more optimistic “Rock Mountain Raga,” swirling with beauty and intrigue for over eight minutes. “Song of the Stallion” might ring slightly saccharine to some, but it’s Basho in his comfort zone, delivering golden acoustic guitar licks as he yodels and wails, imagining himself rolling through the wilderness with a steed by his side. It’s hard not to get swept up in his visions when his voice soars upwards above his rushing guitar. “Redwood Ramble” was likely an excellent aural introduction to California for these Italian concertgoers, and the miniature piece “German Chocolate Cake” is as delightful as its namesake desert.
Basho would pass away only a few years later, leaving behind a treasure trove of Pop Primitivism. Live in Forli isn’t always the best messenger of his radiant outlook, but when it does shine, it shines as brightly as Basho’s guitar.