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During the day, he worked at a music shop, repairing guitars, a task for which he had no qualifications but much enthusiasm. One day a man came in to sell a National steel guitar, and Ptacek bought it on the spot for $175. When he learned some open tunings (he leans toward E and G) and put a slide to it, he discovered a guitar style for which he's justly acclaimed.
"I'd heard the Dobro in my dreams or something," he recalls. "I do remember hearing it and not knowing what it was but making a mental note of it. It's such a cool sound, and it's so unique. When I heard it again, I found out what it was."
Ptacek began playing Tucson coffee houses as a solo act, and one night Howe Gelb came in during his set and asked if he could join in on piano. They jammed for hours, bouncing riffs off each other with the telepathy of musical brethren.
In the early '80s, they formed Giant Sand, one of the longest-running and best-loved Amerindie bands of the postpunk era. Ptacek bowed out after recording one four-song single, but his connection with Gelb remained strong, and led to offers from European labels for Ptacek's solo material.
None of his five albums has been released in the United States, and his albums have been issued in so many forms with so many imprints that tracking down a particular album can be daunting. Even Ptacek says, "I get confused about what records I have and where they were released." As a result, his records have sold poorly and provided him with scant income.
European audiences started to notice him, though, and one British show included a fairly prominent audience member--Robert Plant. A few months later, Plant asked to work with him.
They sat down with nothing planned, and Ptacek played Dobro while Plant sang whatever occurred to him. It was an improvisational approach that Ptacek himself developed years before. Ptacek tends to borrow recording equipment and spend days casually putting music on tape. Then he goes back and whittles hours of tape down to a few minutes of usable material. From his collaboration with Plant came three B-sides for singles from Plant's 1993 album Fate of Nations.
What Plant discovered in Ptacek was something the former Led Zeppelin singer often talked of wanting to find for himself: a way to take the dark, brooding spirit of the blues and make it contemporary.
Much as critics try to pin a blues label on Ptacek's music, his work is too slippery for the tag. None of his songs follows the traditional 12-bar blues form. Many employ minor chords atypical of blues songwriting. His fondness for ambient textures and techno drum patterns don't quite conform to blues standards, either.
Ptacek can best be compared with artists like Tom Waits, Richard Thompson, Los Lobos and Daniel Lanois--people who've melded the ultratraditional with the ultramodern, distorting old musical forms just enough to breathe new life into them.
"I never pin myself down to only listening to one thing," he says. "Blues always appealed to me 'cause it was so direct and straight from the heart. But I also love flamenco music, which is like Spanish blues, straight from the heart and so much emotion.
"What I got bored with, and what I wouldn't do, were songs that were slight, poppy kind of songs. Why even bother writing a song like that? If you're gonna write a song, why not write a song that means something?"
Thanks to Gelb and Plant's enthusiastic support, The Inner Flame is that unique tribute album that illuminates something more than the performers' listening tastes.
Because Ptacek plays guitar on several tracks, his distinct sound is not lost in the translation, but merely adorned by a host of great singers. For instance, Kris McKay's powerhouse rendition of "One Man Crusade" pushes Ptacek to dizzying heights on his Dobro. Victoria Williams and husband Mark Olson find the Eastern heart of the droning "Something's Got to Be Done." And PJ Harvey--another artist who knows that the blues must be destroyed in order to be saved--goes industrial with the funky "Losin' Ground," aided by John Parish and Eric Drew Feldman.
The best track on the album, though, comes from a somewhat unlikely source. Evan Dando delivers a perfectly understated baritone reading of "Rudy With a Flashlight" (a tribute to Ptacek's son), sounding like the wise old bluesman he'll never be mistaken for. It's a perfect example of how the spirit of this project carried artists to new places.
The album's title song is the only one Ptacek wrote after his seizure. Backed by Giant Sand, and trading vocal lines with his old buddy Gelb, Ptacek reveals what his life-threatening experience taught him. "Love is a crucible, open to all," he sings. "Everything should come from the deepest place." Repeatedly, in the song, he questions himself, "What do I know about love?"
A local booking agent who's worked with Ptacek over the years says Ptacek always struck him as distant, possibly even bitter. The agent noticed a huge change when he saw Ptacek last year and heard him speak with such enthusiasm about his life. Ptacek himself will tell you he feels like a new man.