Wednesday 19 November 1997
The talent of some musicians can only be measured by the influence they've had on others. The guitarist and singer Rainer had a unique rootsy, melancholic, bluesy style and was a great favourite of Robert Plant, the ZZ Top guitarist Billy Gibbons and the country singer Emmylou Harris. His unusual guitar playing, as well as his heartfelt personal lyrics, recorded simply under his first name Rainer, made him a cult figure in Europe.
His father was a Czech soldier who met his German mother in East Berlin. Rainer Ptacek was born in 1951; three years later, his parents sneaked to West Berlin before the wall went up and then emigrated to America in 1956. They settled in Chicago and Rainer attended the Saint Rita High School; he first discovered the blues through the music of white artists. He would later recall "being influenced by English blues bands - Fleetwood Mac, John Mayall, the Rolling Stones. Then, of course, you start reading where these songs were taken from and everything kind of pointed back to Robert Johnson."
Drifting west, Rainer ended up in Tucson, Arizona, where he drove cabs and worked as a janitor and cabinet maker. In 1972, he finally found a dream job repairing guitars in a Tucson music shop named, ironically enough, the Chicago Music Shop. He occasionally played with local groups like the rambling, swampy Giant Sand, with Howe Gelb as lead singer.
Soon Rainer was lending his guitar to Gelb's countrified and fictitious spin-off group The Band Of Blacky Ranchette, on albums including Heartland (1986). In 1984, Rainer also formed Das Combo. The Rolling Stone journalist Kurt Loder raved about The Mush Mind Blues album and in 1986, Making Waves, a British label, issued Barefoot Rock With Rainer And Das Combo. Rainer's first visit to the UK the same year was as part of a package tour featuring Giant Sand and The Band Of Blacky Ranchette alongside Das Combo, with seven musicians rotating in various permutations to make up all three bands.
However, Rainer's unique guitar style, using a thumb-pick and playing fingerstyle, was better showcased on 1991's Worried Spirits, a solo effort ("Dazzling", said the Guardian; "Startling", enthused the New Musical Express). He had started incorporating natural sounds and tape loops and, on his second UK visit, really hit a chord with lovers of the languid guitar styles of J.J. Cale and Ry Cooder. He appeared with his trademark Dobro and National steel guitar on Radio 4's Midweek, recorded a soundtrack for The Fire Beetle, a BBC2 feature film, toured the UK with Rory Gallagher and then played throughout Europe, even appearing in Prague and visiting the village home of his ancestors.
In the mid-Eighties, Rainer had hooked up with ZZ Top guitarist Billy Gibbons for some mysterious recordings. Dusted down, given a new sheen and finally released in 1993, The Texas Tapes created something of a stir among the cognoscenti trying to second-guess the identity of Rainer's illustrious sidekick (the Justis Walkert pseudonym previously used by Gibbons was the giveaway). The same year, Robert Plant drafted Rainer for part of the sessions which became the Fate Of Nations album. Rainer's guest appearance was especially impressive on an acoustic cover of the Led Zeppelin classic "Whole Lotta Love", which appeared as a bonus track on the "29 Palms" single.
In 1994, Rainer recorded the haunting, ethereal Nocturnes in his local San Pedro Chapel. Making full use of the setting and a sample pedal, the resulting album chimed in well with ambient and new age tendencies. Things were looking up for Rainer, who in 1995 worked with the US singer-songwriter Victoria Williams; but, in February 1996, he crashed his motorbike in Tucson. He broke his clavicle, but doctors were rather more concerned about a brain scan they'd done; he was diagnosed as having a large, inoperable brain tumour. Following intensive chemotherapy, the cancer was thought to have gone into remission. However, Rainer's medical bills had reached a reported $250,000.
Howe Gelb offered to help and decided to emulate the "Sweet Relief" albums which had already supported performers like Victoria Williams and Vic Chesnutt through trying times, with other artists covering their songs. Once Robert Plant and Atlantic Records came on board, The Inner Flame project snowballed, secured the involvement of Emmylou Harris, Jonathan Richman, and Evan Dando, and was released in the United States in August.
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