Buck Curran: Immortal Light
Obsolete Recordings / ESP-Disk

VA: Basket Full of Dragons: A Tribute to Robbie Basho vol 2
Obsolete Recordings

Given my familiarity with Buck Curran's work as one-half of the folk outfit Arborea, I'd expected his debut solo collection, Immortal Light, to be solid, but in all honesty, I hadn't expected it be as great as it is. Largely operating without his Arborea partner Shanti Deschaine, he's produced an album which is in certain respects different from but in many ways as strong as an Arborea release.

With the group project, in operation since 2005, on hiatus, the time was ripe for Buck to step out on his own. Drawing inspiration from time spent by the Androscoggin River near his home and the natural world around and above him, Curran began crafting material for the album, which developed into a deeply personal set reflecting profound life changes (the selection of the NASA photo of Pluto for the cover wasn't randomly chosen as it symbolizes transformation, rebirth, and renewal). The album unites all of Curran's strengths: lyrically, the material is both personal and supra-personal, and a healthy strain of mysticism runs throughout; sonically, Immortal Light includes generous helpings of his acoustic and electric guitar playing (“Sea of Polaris” an especially excellent example), which he supplements with harmonium, flute, and banjo. His primary musical influences, from blues and rock to Indian Classical music and psychedelic folk, also surface on the recording.

An hypnotic, reverb-scented acoustic guitar-and-banjo meditation provides a strong mood-setter (“Wayfaring Summer (Reprise)”), after which “New Moontide” deepens the entrancement with Buck and (on backup) Shanti communing deeply with the natural world (“Swimming in the new moontide / We're coming through in waves, you and I”). Here and elsewhere, Curran's strong, deep voice is appealing, even if it's not quite as mesmerizing an instrument as Shanti's. He was smart, then, to feature his singing on three songs only and to strengthen the album by including her on three also, two as backup and one lead (“Immortal Light,” on which she also plays harmonium). As satisfying as his voice is, it might have proved less effective had it appeared on all eight of the album's songs.

We're so familiar with CCR's rousing version of “Bad Moon Rising” that it's striking when Curran's stripped-down treatment lets us hear it anew. With drums omitted and the song transformed into a cryptic dirge, our attention's turned to the foreboding nature of John Fogerty's lyrics, so much so that lines such as “Don't go around tonight / It's bound to take your life,” singlehandedly conjure images of Manson-esque groups roaming the streets and hunting for victims. And at album's end, “Immortal Light,” a fourteen-minute, harmonium-drenched meditation on nature's healing powers featuring a haunting Shanti on lead and Buck on acoustic guitars, becomes a veritable Arborea track.

The instrumentals, the pastoral spell-caster “River unto Sea” and cosmic folk-drone “Andromeda” among them, are anything but second-rate, as Curran distinguishes each one with a loving attention to detail and enriches them with multiple layers of guitars. He intensifies the mystical aura of “Seven Gardens to Your Shore” by augmenting his impassioned declarations and acoustic guitars with E-bow-generated washes. Curran wisely alternates between vocal and non-vocal tracks, and the well-considered track sequencing enhances the impact of the recording as a whole. One comes away from this exceptional collection impressed by his attention to detail and the meticulous care with which it's been crafted.

The second tribute collection to Robbie Basho Curran's curated (2010's We Are All One, In the Sun: a tribute to Robbie Basho the first) is strong, too, albeit for different reasons. What helps set it apart is that the artists involved didn't set out to ape Basho's six- and twelve-string guitar playing and/or his robust vocal delivery; instead, they've individually drawn inspiration from him and channeled his spirit for their respective contributions. As a result, many facets of Basho's artistry come to the fore, such as his love for music of different cultures (Indian, Persian, and Native American among them), making for a varied set of thirteen originals and Basho covers. Vocal settings rub shoulders with solo acoustic guitar pieces, and the range of instrument sounds alone makes the compilation worth attending to, with guitars (twelve-string, nylon string) featured alongside oud (Syrian-based Tammam Saeed, joined by drummer/percussionist April Centrone on “Fog Upon the Moon”) and hammered dulcimer (Mike Tamburo on his “The Chameleon and the Crow”).

American finger-style guitarist Glenn Jones pairs with Matthew Azevedo on “Portrait of a Basho as a Young Dragon” for a stirring, acoustic guitar-harmonium meditation that evokes the entire American Primitive era all by its lonesome; as powerful is “The Rediscovery of the Basho Cathedral,” a dazzling, nine-minute workout by German guitarist and Basho acolyte Steffen Basho-Junghans. Elsewhere on the instrumental solo guitar front, Italian-based Paolo Novellino ventures into explorative territory on “Pasha,” and Chuck Johnson conjures the image of the American south using slide artistry and fingerpicking on “Golden Rose at Dawn.” Curran appears in partnership with Italian singer Adele H, whose heartfelt vocal performance makes “Manifestations of the Sun” one of the more memorable songs, while Twelve Hides' “California Raga” and “Wine Song of Love” by Mariano Rodriguez, Karina Vismara, and Jonah Schwartz act as instant portals to earlier decades. There's also an original by one-time Basho student Richard Osborn (“Walk in Beauty: A Healing Way Song”), a strong duet by guitarists Michael Gulezian and Henry Kaiser (“Enigmatic Eagle”), and “Salangadou,” a family affair featuring American singer Eva Sheppard and her father, Jesse, on twelve-string. Aside from the obvious richness of the musical content, what stands out perhaps most of all is how each contributor, many of them revered names within the contemporary folk community, honours this American music pioneer in his/her own way.

August 2016