Eternal Flame

The music of Arizona guitar legend Rainer Ptacek lives on with a trilogy of new releases

Alpaca Lips includes the Wonder song, one each by Greg Brown and Howe Gelb, and 14 originals. Notable among them: "Bo Weavil," a funky country blues song and a vocal showcase for the slurring, falsetto-swooping Rainer; the ominously droning, almost wraithlike "Rude World"; a nine-minute freeform improvisation called "Horse Hair"; and a playful, touching number, "Rudy With a Flashlight," about watching his son search the starry heavens with the light. Complex and riveting yet accessible on multiple levels, the album locates Rainer at an artistic peak -- songwriting, singing and playing.

"It took some time to relearn everything he'd known before the seizure," says Gelb of Rainer's initial recovery period. "The most amazing part of his trek -- which was unbearably frustrating, given how his brain wouldn't work with him for the longest time to remember so many things, let alone the coordination it takes for his hands to carry out his brain's ideas -- was that he not only was able to teach himself all over again; his stunning achievement was then to surpass his ability before he got sick! I remember coming over to where he was practicing what would become 'The Inner Flame' [recorded by Giant Sand and Rainer as the title track for the '97 InnerFlame Rainer tribute/benefit album featuring Page & Plant, Emmylou Harris, PJ Harvey and more]. The moment I heard it, I could hear the progression of his writing ability. And it was as if he were never sick at all. It was astonishing to me since I'd watched him struggle with relearning to even hold a guitar again."

Another triumph occurred at a Tucson concert on June 6, 1997, prior to Rainer's relapse. Recorded professionally and now slated to become the second installment in the trilogy, Live at the Performance Center is, by Gelb's description, "the best live recording I have ever heard from anyone, anywhere, from any time. And if you listen with a critical ear -- which is hard to do, given the emotional status -- he keeps getting it better and better as the set goes on. He's on a plane I have never heard anyone ever get to."

The late Rainer Ptacek: "It's almost as if he left us road maps to where he was going."
Jean-Marc Lubrano
The late Rainer Ptacek: "It's almost as if he left us road maps to where he was going."

The third release will be called The Farm, comprising new songs culled from the more than 15 hours of material recorded in the weeks immediately prior to Rainer's passing. Recalls Gelb, "That came about after his final seizure [in '97]. I raced home from a European tour to find him talking in numbers. Again, he slowly began to relearn his guitar, but this time the end was imminent. We all knew it. And we had to tell him, as well. Anyway, I mentioned to him that he was coming up with all kinds of ideas on the guitar; would he like to record again? To focus on that for the healing it can do, and the relief of the art he gave himself to his whole life. A day or so later, he was up for it. We headed up to Harvey's place [Harvey Moltz, Tucson studio owner], and three sessions later we had a slew of material."

Glitterhouse is additionally set to reissue Worried Spirits and The Texas Tapes, both originally released by Demon Records but currently out of print. (Consult the label's Web site at www.glitterhouse.com for mail-order details.)

Meanwhile, Gelb, who penned Alpaca Lips' heartfelt liner notes, observes that there's perhaps a deeper significance to what Rainer accomplished, saying, "What a great struggle for him at times to even read and make sense of the notes he'd made. The spine tingle is the delivery from a man who is perched on the precipice and able to look over into the void and deliver still, in this world, what he sees on both sides.

"What can I say? You can hear it."

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