Music So Alive

Friends and family of Rainer Ptacek gather in his memory, 10 years after his death

It's been 10 years since now-legendary Tucson guitarist and singer Rainer Ptacek died after a nearly two-year battle with lymphoma and a brain tumor. He was 46 years old and left behind an impressive body of work in a unique blues-rock style that was alternately ferocious and tender.

Rainer--as he was known to family, friends and fans--was much-loved during his life, and in the last decade, his legacy has endured with many posthumous releases. He'll be remembered with a tribute concert Saturday night, Nov. 24, at Club Congress.

The stage will be crowded with friends, former bandmates and even family members performing his music.

Rainer was born in 1951 in East Berlin, the son of a Czech father and German mother. His family escaped to West Berlin when he was 2 years old and moved to Chicago in 1956.

He played accordion and violin until he--like so many of his generation, inspired by The Beatles--picked up the guitar. In addition to playing electric, he mastered the Dobro and the National steel acoustic guitar, on which he played in a breathtaking slide style that was influenced by, among others, Robert Johnson.

Rainer moved to Tucson in the 1970s and befriended Howe Gelb, a musician who had relocated here from New Jersey. Gelb introduced Rainer to his wife, Patti Keating.

With Gelb, Rainer was an original member of Giant Sandworms, which later became the ever-evolving Giant Sand. The two musicians remained best friends throughout the years, artistically inspiring and challenging each other.

In the early 1980s, Rainer formed his own band, a blues-based trio called Das Combo, which itself went through several transmutations. He also often played as a solo act, a shaker strapped to his foot, a delay pedal electronically repeating guitar lines against his live playing.

In the course of his career, Rainer played with such stellar artists as ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons, Robert Plant, Greg Brown, Victoria Williams and Los Lobos, among others. Plant, in fact, invited Rainer to England so the two could record some B-sides in 1993.

After Rainer became ill in 1996, his friends rallied around him, producing The Inner Flame, an anthology recording that featured Rainer's songs played by Gelb, Plant, Jimmy Page, Emmylou Harris, Vic Chesnutt, Jonathan Richman, PJ Harvey, Madeleine Peyroux and others.

Gelb said he is working with Plant and Rounder Records to re-release a new version of The Inner Flame with extra cuts by the likes of Grandaddy, Lucinda Williams and Chuck Prophet.

Gelb and Keating conceived this weekend's concert. When I visited Keating this past weekend to borrow some photos for this article, she told me that the event's primary goal is "to keep Rainer's memory alive." Meanwhile, the stereo played a Ptacek-Plant cut from The Inner Flame.

Among Tucson's close-knit music community, there's little chance than Rainer will be forgotten. This gentle and creative man survives in his immortal compositions, memories of those amazing performances and several excellent albums.

The most recent of these is a CD of heretofore-unreleased recordings from 1987 titled The Westwood Sessions, Volume 1. Compiled by DJ and engineer Jim Blackwood, it is the first of three planned volumes and has been released by Gelb's Ow Om Records.

Gelb recalled that the tapes for The Westwood Sessions were stored away soon after they were recorded 20 years ago. "Those are tapes that Rainer gave Nick (Augustine). And in pure Rainer, off-handed joking-commentary fashion, he told Nick, 'Go stash these somewhere near a magnet.' He believed in reverse psychology of the universe."

At the tribute concert, bassist Augustine and drummer Ralph Gilmore--who constituted the last and perhaps the most memorable version of Rainer's backup band Das Combo--will act as the core rhythm section, with the addition of Kevin Pakulis on guitar.

In addition to his music and spirit, Rainer's legacy includes three children, all musically inclined. Adult sons Gabe (guitar) and Rudy (drums) will perform together and in various combinations with others at the tribute concert, and even 12-year-old daughter Lily plays clarinet at her middle school.

Also scheduled to appear are Kris McKay, Mitzi Cowell, Ned Sutton, John Convertino and many others. Gelb will serve as master of ceremonies, and other interested musicians can sign up to play at the concert.

Augustine said the show won't be tightly structured or rehearsed.

"It's going to be fairly loose, you know, with Ralph and me and Kevin as the nucleus, and we'll just let it happen."

That modus operandi reflects the manner in which Rainer played with Das Combo, Augustine said.

"I can't compare (playing in Das Combo) to anything else, because it was just so different from anything I ever played. We never really planned what we were going to play. It was like, we would just start playing, and Rainer would throw anything at us. He just loved that."

Augustine said he can't believe it's already been 10 years since Rainer's passing.

"It's so funny, but it doesn't seem like that long ago. The music is so alive. He lives on through the music."

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