Let us once again ponder the arc of Tucson's Rainer Ptacek, the late slide guitar maestro and folk/blues singer-songwriter whose fateful duel with brain cancer may have brought heartache -- but during an extended (if temporary) recovery period also brought an astonishing resurgence of his musical skills that surpassed even the expectations of those who knew and loved him.
It's June 6, 1997, the night before Rainer's 46th birthday, and gathered at the Old Pueblo's Performance Center -- appropriately enough, a converted church -- is a raptly attentive congregation eager to receive Rainer's witness. According to his widow Patti Keating, writing in the liner notes to Live at the Performance Center, "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." (The story behind the efforts of Keating, Giant Sand's Howe Gelb and Rainer's German label Glitterhouse to mount a posthumous Rainer trilogy, of which this is the middle part, was detailed in the June 29, 2000, issue of New Times.)
The 20-song, 75-minute set speaks volumes about the artist and his artistry as only a live album can do. As Gelb mused on the virtues of the pristine document, "I was amazed at two things: how well it was recorded -- the best live recording I have ever heard from anyone anywhere! -- and how great he played and sang. If you listen with a critical ear he keeps getting it better and better as the set goes on. It's unbelievable! After the fifth song he is on a plane I have never heard anyone ever get to, and I know his tricks with his two digital capture pedals. I still cannot believe what the hell he is doing with them as he plays off his own captured rhythms, which I have since learned from using those same pedals is a random thing and an art in itself to capture a rhythm just right."
Live at the Performance Center begins on an ethereal note, the shimmering instrumental "Improv in E." Then Rainer serves up the night's first devastating testimony with the deceptively jaunty, Ry Cooderish "Sometimes It's Hard." Imagine getting slapped from out of the blue by a deadly brain tumor and then slowly coming to grips with the fleeting preciousness of life: "Sometimes it's hard to remember/Sometimes it's hard to recall/The reasons why we're here/The reasons why we're here at all/Then it hits me, hits me like a big jolt/Comin' straight into my brain/That the only reason why we're here/Is just to love away the pain."
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Following some deep-blues-roots revisiting (J.B. Lenoir's "Round and Round," from the '86 album Barefoot Rock; "Powder Keg," from 1992's Worried Spirits), the plane Gelb mentioned is reached, simultaneously chilling a primal spot deep inside you. "Inner Flame" has that same staring-into-the-abyss, meeting-your-maker quality that marked Robert Johnson's most haunted compositions, equal parts lyrical terror ("This story's out of place, this story's out of fear/How'd you come in here, how'd you get past the gate?") and fretboard transcendence (just past the two-and-a-half-minute mark, Rainer erupts into a jaw-dropping series of rapid-fire glissandos, bent notes and abrasive lower-string clawing).
And with each successive number, the bar just gets raised higher. Standouts include originals like the quirky, staccato blues "Lament of Love" and the eerily droning "Rude World," the latter in particular demonstrating Rainer's full range of technique on his treasured National Steel guitar along with his subtle, virtuoso deployment of tape effects. There's an atmospheric instrumental reading of George Harrison's "Within You Without You"; a self-explanatory and altogether jubilant take on Willie Nelson's "Time Slips Away"; and an unexpectedly warm, soulful version of Billie Holiday's "God Bless the Child." Rainer closes with "Long Way," an elegant number whose message, about humility received, rings brutally true, given what we now know awaited the man in just five short months. Is it foresight or foreshadowing when he sings, "You can't make love to fortune and fame," concluding a few lines later, "it's a long, long way to the top of the world, but only a short fall back down"?
Full of emotional subtext, lyrical nuance and complex sonic delicacy, this album has a deeply spiritual vibe, its creator possessed not so much with a grimness of purpose as by an intensity fueled by the burning need of the artist to express, to testify, to witness.