WRIT IN BLOOD Rainer Ptacek

A new
archival release featuring backing from members of Calexico finds the late Tucson guitar maestro
staring down the tumult of life and death.

 

BY JOHN SCHACHT

Speak with almost anyone from Tucson’s fertile music scene and eventually
the name Rainer Ptacek will come up. Despite his passing in 1997 at the age of
46 following a second bout with brain cancer, Rainer (talented enough to earn
the first-name-only sobriquet) still casts a long shadow over the music
community in Tucson and in some “musicians-musician”-circles far beyond its
desert  surroundings.

 

But nowhere was that shadow longer than in the Giant
Sand/Calexico universe. For Howe Gelb, Rainer was friend and mentor, a
guitarist and songwriter with an equally idiosyncratic blues-and-country rock
vision informed by the heat, sand and cactus of the local terrain. Together
they formed Giant Sandworms in the late ‘70s, which later morphed into Gelb’s
Giant Sand collective.

 

Coming piecemeal to Giant Sand but forming its best-known
lineup, drummer John Convertino and bassist Joey Burns – now the brain trust of
Calexico- joined Rainer in July and early August of 1997 at the Barrio Viejo
home of journalist, author and activist Bill Carter to record these deceptively
casual tracks. At the time of this recording, Rainer was in remission, having
survived the stroke-like collapse and memory slate-cleaning that announced the
brain cancer, the chemo and radiation, and the long hours spent relearning his
own music and retraining his mind to understand what his fingers wanted it to
do.

 

Rainer would spend the time between his initial February,
1996 diagnosis and treatment, and the recurrence that eventually killed him in
November, 1997, putting down some of his most affecting music. In addition to
this summer date with Burns and Convertino, he recorded what many consider his
masterpiece, Live at the Performance
Center
, a stunning solo gig on the eve of his last birthday (June 6) in
which every track seems a pathway to new guitar-genius territory. 

 

He also appeared on The
Inner Flame: The Rainer Ptacek Tribute
, the Gelb-curated disc to raise
funds for the insurance-less Rainer’s staggering medical bills. The respect his
peers had for Rainer is manifest in the lineup, which featured among its tracks
Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, P.J. Harvey, Vic Chesnutt, Jonathan Richman, Evan
Dando, Emmylou Harris and Madeleine Peyroux. Then, shortly before his death, Rainer
recorded The Farm (eventually
released in 2002), his final sessions before the disease forced him to put down
his beloved National Steel forever.

 

So, then, Roll Back
the Years
, a victim until now of timing and circumstance, released by
Rainer’s widow with the assistance of archivist David La Russa and audio wizard
Jim Blackwood (www.RainerMusic.comwww.rainer.bandcamp.com). Because
of the release of his live date, and later The
Farm
, these songs wound up on the shelf for 14 years.  (Three of the songs – “The Farm,” “Oasis,”
and “Hard to Remember” – would appear on The
Farm
, a hint that perhaps this one was meant to be permanently shelved.)
And while Roll Back the Years features Rainer and a combo, the
music is not to be confused with Rainer & Das Combo, Ptacek’s power-blues
outfit of the late ‘80s/early ‘90s (1993’s The
Texas Tapes
featured an uncredited but prominent collaborator: ZZ Top’s
Billy Gibbons).

 

Burns and Convertino had recorded with Rainer prior to this
date (a clutch of songs for 1995’s DYO
Boot
, for instance, and a version of Stevie Wonder’s “Pastime Paradise”
released posthumously on 2000’s Alpaca
Lips
), and they slipped right into their rock-solid sidemen roles here,
sometimes with first-take succinctness. With Rainer exclusively on dobro or his
National Steel resonator, Burns’ acoustic bass and Convertino’s brushed skins
nudge the pace where it needs to go and then get out of the way while the
bottleneck and finger-picking magic – a blend of Ry Cooder-blues and John
Fahey-folk-meets-Mississippi John Hurt-finger-picking prowess — takes place.

 

The songs range from chooglin’ blues-rock (“My Honey”),
boogie-woogie (“Now I Know Better”) and traditional acoustic blues fare
(“Tenish”) to the desert-baked shuffles (“Roll Back the Years”) and
instrumental explorations (“Di Latin”) familiar to the Giant Sand/Calexico
songbooks. Sung in Rainer’s Dylan-like nasal register, the songs nevertheless
convey a wide range of emotion. Of course the narratives carry the specter of
his diagnosis with them, but there is also urgency, appreciation and unbridled
joy coursing through them and his nonpareil playing – the tumult of life and
death, illness and remission, writ in blood and lived in visceral real-time.

 

Rainer encapsulates all of those conflicted feelings over
the jaunty beat of “Hard to Remember” when he sings, “Sometimes I can’t
remember/the reasons why we’re here at all/then it hits me, hits me like a big
jolt/comin’ straight into my brain/that the only reason why we’re here/is to
love away the pain.”

 

It’s a spine-chilling moment, one of many on a dusky gem
that reminds us what an underappreciated Rainer meant to fans, blues-guitar
geeks, fellow musicians, and friends – both as an extraordinary player and a
humble, kind friend and family man.

 





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