Robbie Basho is the least heralded of the three Takoma musicians who revolutionized the acoustic guitar in the 1960s. John Fahey is a legend, Leo Kottke even achieved commercial success, but Basho remains largely unknown, as spectral as his music. This reissue of his 1969 album Venus in Cancer reminds us that he deserved no such fate. The album sits well next to Fahey's Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death and Kottke's 6 and 12-String Guitar, even as it goes further than either into the spirit realm.
Like his comrades, Basho had a sense of humor about his work, evidenced immediately in the amusing cover shot of a woman made up with claw-hands and what we can only assume are supposed to be crab eyes accosting the nude, stoic Venus. As weird as it is, the image could never be as otherworldly as the music. The album kicks off with the title track-- nine-and-a-half minutes of superb solo acoustic guitar. Basho mixed elements and styles, using open twelve-string tunings to peek at Indian raga from a base in Appalachian folk. The harmony of the piece shifts between Eastern stasis and Western motion, and then within that Western motion between buoyant melody and foreboding dissonance.
The fretwork is even more dazzling on "Kowaka D'Amour", which features a hyperspeed mid-section that must have required jaw-dropping technique. The playing in the slower movements sounds influenced by the North African oud style, bouncing around in a scale and double-plucking notes at startling speed. If Basho's guitar playing was beyond impressive, another aspect of his sound is likely to rouse controversy: his voice.
Basho's vocals appear on half of the album's six songs, and there's nothing like his singing in pop, folk, or anywhere else. He sings from deep within his chest but doesn't project operatically, resulting in a strange, elemental tone that lends his florid poetry cosmic weight. On much of "Song for the Queen" he sings in long, hanging notes; accompanied by French horn, violin, and guitar, the song's spoken section has a Renaissance meets Shakespearean feel. Basho doesn't bother with lyrics on "Eagle Sails the Blue Diamond Waters", instead wailing wordlessly over fluttering finger work and harmonics, with an assist from Victor Chancellor's "drone guitar."
Venus in Cancer comes from a place-- part spiritual, part cosmic, and part earthen-- that's difficult to define. This singular work has been nicely cleaned up and remastered by the Tompkins Square folks, and the guitar leaps right out of the speakers with force and clarity, the sound of fingers rubbing strings intact. In these days of freak-folk and new guitar explorers like Steffen Basho-Junghans and Ben Chasny, this fits right in.