Like many people, Robbie Basho was known to me as a fine player of both six and twelve string guitars whose music and life were influenced by Eastern philosophies such as Zen Buddhism. I hadn’t heard that much of his playing, had watched the only available footage on YouTube and, to be honest, had never heard him sing. Consequently Rainbow Thunder came as a bit of a surprise.
The album was originally released in 1981 but somehow sounds earlier and indeed two of the tracks, Moving Up A’Ways and Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee are re-workings of titles recorded on the earlier Voice Of The Eagle dating from 1972. The later version of Moving Up A’Ways is marginally shorter and the guitar has a more delicate feel; that of Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee losing the better part of two minutes by the omission of a faster closing passage. Whilst the guitar treatment of this song is similar in both versions, on Rainbow Thunder Basho uses a twelve string rather than the six of the earlier Voice of the Eagle.
Redwood Ramble, the opening and only instrumental track on the album, demonstrates Basho’s unbelievable right hand technique. Rollicking along with echoes of messrs Fahey and Kotke, it is a master class in precise and hugely engaging fingerstyle on a six string. Somehow, wonderful as it is, the piece seems oddly out of place with what follows.
The liner notes offer Basho’s purpose in making the album:-
“Rainbow Thunder is a collection of songs expressing the feelings and textures of the West in its Prime, and of the Native American Peoples who lived there. I hope it does them some small degree of justice — they who looked so hard into Nature”
The logical response to this is to ask if he succeeded, my own view is partially. The intensity of the performances bears witness to the sincerity of his purpose. Personally, whilst recognising his obvious vocal expertise, I am not overly taken with Basho’s voice but then that is a subjective judgement. The guitar playing throughout the album is undeniably fantastic. Fingerstyle accompaniments range from simply wonderful to ‘how the hell does he do that with only one hand and five fingers!’ Those tracks which have strummed backing benefit from his extraordinary right hand technique, closer listening revealing so much going on inside a strumming pattern sometimes delivered at considerable speed. My concern rests with the core of the album, the songs.
Whilst the lyrics of several songs reflect Basho’s eclectic interest in and study of both Far and Middle Eastern religions, philosophies and mysticism, something in both the tunes and vocal treatments at times puts one in mind of Western themes of late 50s/early 60s , suggesting an ornamented Frankie Laine perhaps. It might be no coincidence that, since first listening to Rainbow Thunder I have had the theme from ‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’ banging around my head. The tunes somehow seem at variance with the subject matter, the Native American ornamentation and language and even the intensity of the performance. These concerns should not be overstated, for a start they are personal and there was only one track on which the vocal really grated. This was the closing Black Hills Soliloquy, but I have an aversion to most spoken ‘songs’. Spoken over a rolling accompaniment driven by that exceptional right hand, wonderful guitar is overlaid with a vocal line which at the beginning reminds me of the worst ecesses of The Indian Love Call and later just sounds pretentious and overblown. Oh well, you can’t like everything you hear
Despite my concerns outlined above, I still enjoyed the album, the stand out track being Home Again which is credited as drum, vocal and guitar. Listening over, my own view is that the ‘drum’ is the guitar body; the ‘guitar’ the resonance of the open strings as the track dies. Whichever, it is delightfully open and evocative.
Unsurprisingly for a guitarist who can’t sing to save his life, it was the playing which most grabbed my attention. My personal favourite being the accompaniment to The Long Lullaby which demonstrates fantastic right hand control of a 12 string fretted high up the neck, giving an extraordinary effect somewhere between a mandolin and a harpsichord. Would that I could….
Incidentally, anyone interested in Robbie Basho should perhaps visit the web site http://www.robbiebasho-archives.info (follow ‘Visions’, scrolling down to the Rainbow Thunder album for lyrics) as the site provides a wealth of information on many aspects of Basho and his music.
Review by: Nick Dellar
Rainbow Thunder – Songs of the American West is released via Grass-tops Recording
Order it via Bandcamp