Rainer Ptacek

Live At The Performance Center (Glitterhouse Records 00) Rating: A
The liner notes written by wife Patti in October 2000 read as follows: "This concert was recorded on June 6th 1997, the eve of Rainer's 46th birthday. He was in full remission and was sitting on top of the world. I can't remember a time where he was more alive than that night. He played to a full and gracious house in a beautiful old church that was converted into a performing arts center in downtown Tucson. He had the foresight to record the evening professionally by his friend Cliff Eager...". Alas, the good times did not last, and Rainer Ptacek fell victim to cancer on November 12, 1997, leaving behind his devoted wife and three children who by all accounts were the apple of his eye. You see, Rainer was more interested in being an honest, humble family man who made great music in his spare time (repairing guitars was his main "gig") than in compromising his music, lifestyle, or principles for commercial success. Which is why you've probably never heard of him, and in all honesty neither had I when my friend Guy gave this album his highest recommendation. And you know what? This album is all that I had hoped for and more, though it's a lot to digest at 75 minutes long and it's certainly not for you top 40 types (who probably aren't reading this Web site, anyway). So what does Rainer's music sound like? Well, on this album anyway it's just his keening, impassioned (if far from pitch-perfect) voice and his lone slide guitar or dobro. His amazing guitar playing has an echoed, almost otherworldly quality, and his blues-based songs are consistently well crafted, though again perhaps there are too many of them given that this is just a guy and his guitar. Yet when he busts out the funky blues on J. B. Lenoir's "Round and Round" (which I always find myself singing along to) or hits on the more up-tempo groove of "Powder Keg" you won't even notice the lack of other instruments fleshing out the sound. Better yet, instrumentals such as "Improv in E" and "Di Lantin," and ballads like "The Farm" and his terrific takes on Willie Nelson's "Time Slips Away," Billie Holliday's "God Bless The Child," and George Harrison's "Cheer Down" are among the most gorgeous and affecting I've ever heard, his innovative guitar technique and heart-on-his-sleeves vocal delivery rarely failing to resonate. Indeed, though I appreciate energetic songs such as "Inner Flame" (a virtuoso slide guitar showcase) and "The Mountain," as well as slinky blues tracks such as "Loosin Ground," and "One Wrong Turn" (a Greg Brown cover), it is the mellow material here that nearly moves me to tears, mainly due to their evocative and delicate nature, but also partially due to the circumstances that this album was recorded under and the fact that it stirs up so many memories of my own successful fight against cancer. But this music is mostly terrific regardless of the background or circumstances during which it was recorded, and it's little wonder that Robert Plant, Billy Gibbons, Los Lobos, Victoria Williams, Vic Chesnutt, and Jonathan Richman are among his admirers (each contributed to a tribute album of Rainer's songs that helped Rainer out with his medical expenses; the album was organized by Howe Gelb, his former bandmate in Giant Sand before Rainer formed his own Das Combos trio). Comparisons to Richard Thompson, Ry Cooder, and John Fahey seem appropriate, and if you like rootsy, blues-based music you'd do well to check out this album and others by Rainer Ptacek, whose already enviable reputation will likely grow exponentially as more and more people discover his wonderfully rich and honest music.

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