“Music has always been one of the big mysteries to me. It still draws me in. I can remember back in Berlin when I was 4 years old, playing concertina in the building courtyard for any neighbor who’d listen.
I heard a Dobro once in my dreams when I was young, took note of that sound, and went looking for it.”
“From beer to panty hose. The music I love to play has been usurped by the beer commercials. They’ve stolen one of the best things I love about life and kidnapped it to sell beer. That reason alone would be enough to stop playing that gritty blues slide guitar with the thumping bass and snare.” – Rainer Ptacek 1992
On Rainer Ptacek and the Giant Sandworms first-ever gig
Tucson, AZ (July 20, 2017): Recently, I found an old box of cassette tapes—things even I couldn’t destroy. I came upon a green TDK with the words “Giant Sandworms 1st Gig” scrolled on it. A neighbor still owned a tape deck—the old kind. I took it home and ran a pencil through the spools to loosen up 30-some years, sat down, switched off the light, pushed play, and for a second, I could almost make out the faces …
Tumbleweeds Bar down on Fourth Ave, ‘cross from Choo Choo’s, stamping hands, a crowd, Giant Sandworms. The first four or five songs—a schizoid mix, stuff we must have been practicing, fashioned by an estranged anger, so necessary at that time.
The stink of the joint, P.A. beating the walls with sheets of noise, bursts of protest, beer bottles, young bodies moving through each other. That long urinal packed high with ice, drenched in the ache of impersonal chatter.
We finished an extremely loud song. A kid is heaving up his guts, a girlfriend whistling on two fingers, driving energy toward the stage, when all of a sudden, the whole place goes silent. Like a shipwreck, all of the oxygen sucked right out. Rainer Ptacek steps up to the mic, “This is a tune by James Brown,” he says, “Has anybody heard of James Brown?”
It was not a rhetorical question or measured cool—it was just Rainer, excited and moved by the Godfather of Funk, urgently talking with the kids to vitalize the sincerity and reverence he held for The Man’s music. But hardly a sound emerged. Rainer moved up, stomping his boot in time as he began two measures on the guitar, splitting a slow, unhurried groove.
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London, UK. Fire Records announced today that the scheduled dates of the physical album release of both collectors editions of the re-issues of Texas Tapes and Worried Spirits (with bonus tracks) will be November 17th, 2017. We’ll provide a link for pre-orders once it’s available on the Fire site. Please check back.
(Reimagined, Remastered & Expanded) Explained:
Rainer first met Billy Gibbons in the fall of 1983 when, as Billy explains,
“My sweetheart, Jools Brandt, swooped me on a Monday midnight in Tucson to embrace the blues groove being laid down by none other than the unexpected slithering 6 stringer, known as… just, “Rainer”.” Rainer was playing his weekly “Blue Monday” gig at Nino’s with Das Combo when a big white limousine pulled up in front. Out strode Billy & Julie, dressed in white, hoping to catch a bit of Rainer’s final set of the evening. Folks in Tucson were used to seeing Billy out and about as it was a favorite getaway for him back then, and for him to be checking out one of Tucson’s finest musical offerings was a no-brainer.
After the show, they met, conversed and both came away mutually impressed. They exchanged contact information and promised to stay in touch, which they did, Billy & Rainer exchanging letters in the mail along with cassettes of favorite artists. Rainer also sent him a copy of his new recording “The Mush Mind Blues”, which he self-released on cassette and was selling at gigs.
When Billy returned to Tucson early in 1984 on tour with ZZ Top he invited Rainer to the show and asked him to bring along a copy of the cassette. Backstage after the show Billy introduced Rainer to Kurt Loder who was travelling with the band gathering material for a Rolling Stone magazine article. During their conversation Rainer gave Loder a copy of the Mush Mind cassette.
Thinking not much more about it afterward, Rainer was stunned to find that Loder actually thought enough of the Mush Mind Blues to review it in Rolling Stone for the May 10th 1984 issue, the first independently released cassette ever to be reviewed in the magazine. Not much came from the review in the way of sales, but it was gratifying to say the least.
Fast forward to 1986 when Gold Star Sound Services in Houston, Texas (owned by Gibbons since 1983) purchased and installed a then state of the art
Mitsubishi digital 32-track 1” reel-to-reel tape recorder.
First on Billy’s agenda was to bring Rainer in from Tucson to record. Flying in whenever he could get away, Rainer began by recording a set of demos of tunes he’d already written, but as the process continued he and Gibbons also began writing together. Progress was slow as Rainer could rarely dedicate more than a few days at a time to these trips.
In all, four Rainer originals and six collaborations were chosen, and by 1991 mixing had begun. But there was a problem. Rainer was not happy with any of the mixes presented to him. He felt as if he was being drawn in a direction he didn’t want to go. At least three different mixes were presented to him. Finally, exasperated and wishing to conclude, Rainer flew to Houston early in 1993 and hastily mixed the tracks over the course of a single weekend. He also nixed the release of one of the collaborative tracks, leaving the studio with a total of nine completed. When the album was finally released in mid ’93 the nine chosen “Texas Tapes” tracks were augmented by three acoustic “Arizona Tapes” tracks.
It is fitting that Rainer chose to type the oblique credits for the album throughout a drawing he’d done of a roundabout. He had been sworn to secrecy regarding the project and nowhere on the album was there a mention of Gibbons, who chose to use the pseudonym “Justis Walkert” for the songwriting credits. Although Gibbons involvement was well known in Tucson music circles (and from the sound of the album), when asked “on the record” Rainer would always demure.
This would be the last time Rainer used the “Das Combo” moniker. The “real” band (with Bassist Nick Augustine & Drummer Ralph Gilmore) had already been decommissioned, having given their final performance in May of 1992 in Tucson.
For this 2017 Deluxe Edition of The Texas Tapes, a mix done by Tom Harding (which Rainer was fairly faithful to in his final mix) has been chosen along with one tune (the previously unreleased “Big House In Memphis”) mixed by Robert T. Johnson. Also included is a bonus disc with four of Gibbons’ “big mixes” and three demo recordings, two of which weren’t pursued for the final album.
Although Rainer never pursued this direction again in the few years he had left, it is obvious just how much love, effort and attention to detail was put into the project.
May 31, 2017
(Corrected, Remastered & Expanded) Explained:
(June 12th, 2017) When Tucson, Arizona based guitarist, the late Rainer Ptacek signed with the British Demon Records label early in 1992 he was already hard at work on a secretive project with ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons. Those sessions would be released in 1993 as the Rainer & Das Combo album The Texas Tapes. In the meantime, Rainer had something else on his mind, something much more intimate than the hard rocking heavily produced sounds of the Gibbons sessions.
During July of 1992, with Das Combo drummer Ralph Gilmore offering the use of his converted garage studio, Rainer set up to record alone, with the goal of stripping his songs down to their bare essence. After much experimenting, he finally chose a set-up that involved facing into a single stereo microphone in front of a full-length mirror surrounded by blankets, candles providing the only illumination.
With everything now to his liking, recording went relatively quickly, producing a set of original compositions, a handful of covers and one tune co-written with Billy Gibbons (using the pseudonym “Justis Walkert”), a version of which also features on The Texas Tapes. Fifteen tunes in all were selected and sequenced.
Upon its fall ’92 release in the UK, Worried Spirits was immediately embraced by the British press, garnering high praise from all corners. Keep in mind the fact that Rainer was not new to Brits, having released Barefoot Rock with… Rainer and Das Combo on the Making Waves label in 1986. That album made many “best of” lists at the time. (Fire Records issued a remastered and expanded version of Barefoot Rock… in 2013.) Also of consequence were his collaborations with Howe Gelb, Giant Sand & The Band of Blackie Ranchette.
Rainer arrived in England early in ‘93 for a brief tour involving a radio appearance and a trio of shows in London. On the radio program he was interviewed and performed several songs, not knowing, of course, that Robert Plant happened to be listening in. Plant jotted down Rainer’s name and contacted Demon to find out where he was playing. They met and became fast friends, Plant inviting Rainer back to England in April to record with him. Several of those songs were later issued as B-sides for Plant’s Fate Of Nations singles. Two brief video clips of the session (from a Robert Plant documentary) can be found on YouTube.
Also listening in to the interview was film director Paul Gruebel Lee who contacted Rainer and invited him back to England to record music for the soundtrack to a BBC Arts/Arena Films production “Curse of The Firebeetle” which was accomplished by Rainer improvising while viewing scenes from the film. During the same trip in July ‘93 Rainer appeared on the Jools Holland TV program Later (the clip is also available on YouTube).
Worried Spirits was digitally recorded with borrowed equipment, no budget and no expectations. All the while Rainer maintained his day job repairing musical instruments in his basement shop at Tucson’s fabled Chicago Store.
Rainer’s instincts were rarely wrong, wise beyond his 41 years at the time, and time has shown that Worried Spirits sounds as fresh and relevant today as it did when it was recorded.
In fact, the album has never sounded better. As it turns out, early digital recordings were often plagued by “DC offset”, a technical issue dealing with the limitations of early digital/analog converters which was discovered during the remastering process. This problem has been corrected and for the first time Worried Spirits is being released completely “in focus” with all the headroom and depth of sound Rainer originally intended.
Included in the bonus second disc are twelve tracks from three different sessions, all but four tracks are previously unissued. Track one was released on a compilation of Tucson artists and the last three were originally released (as “From the Arizona Tapes”) to fill out The Texas Tapes compact disc.
Worried Spirits would be the only solo vocal acoustic album released by Rainer during his lifetime, which was cut short in 1997. Whether you are a long-time fan of the album or if you are coming to it for the first time in 2017, you will find something new and rewarding in the listening experience.
May 30, 2017
Fire Records begin the Rainer Ptacek collector reissue series in earnest with the release of his debut album ‘Barefoot Rock’ with backing band Das Combo. All nine of his phenomenal albums were out of print but they have enjoyed a new lease of life with the help of Fire Records.
Rainer (as he was known to his family and friends) was born of Czech descent in East Berlin in 1951 and was snuck out in his baby carriage before the wall went up. His family moved to America in 1956 and he was raised in the Southside of Chicago. He later ended up amongst the canyons and cactus flowers of Tucson, Arizona in1972. There he not only started a family – Rainer and wife Patti have three children – but developed his sensual desert blues sound dominated by his masterful inventiveness on the National steel and Dobro guitars, as well as with guitars of Czech decent.
His national and international profile commenced rising around the time he founded Giant Sandworms with Howe Gelb; despite the fact that the group’s physical legacy includes but a pair of seven-inch records, to this day critics and collectors in far away places still speak of those singles in reverent tones, citing them as early examples of the area’s vaunted desert rock sound. When Gelb temporarily moved the band to New York, Rainer chose to stay in Tucson.
Before too long, in addition to his regular solo gigging, he formed Das Combo, a kind of mutant roots/power blues trio. The impact that the group’s debut Barefoot Rock With Rainer and Das Combo wielded was immediate, despite it originally being released only in Britain.
Over the course of five import-only albums and various collaborations, Rainer established himself as an instinctive, honest songwriter and a singularly gifted musician, who earned a phenomenal reputation.
US writer Fred Mills described Rainer’s guitar brilliance like this; “watching Rainer perform a solo set in a tiny coffee shop down on Tucson’s Fourth Avenue, I was mesmerized by the way his hands floated over the strings and fretboard of his beloved old National Steel. Slide guitar is not an easy technique to master, but Rainer was a master’s master, and he’d also designed an ingenious tape loop system years before other slide guitarists thought to try similar things to enhance their solo sound. This was well before the advent of affordable/portable digital samplers. With the resonator on his guitar adding additional tones and harmonics, at times he could sound like four (or more) guitarists at once.”
In February 1996, Rainer was diagnosed with a brain tumor. He underwent intensive chemotherapy within months of being diagnosed. By summer’s end, the cancer had gone into remission. But while the immediate threat to his life had passed, Ptacek still faced an intense period of rehabilitation. He was healthy, but nearly buried under the weight of a staggering pile of medical bills. The tribute album “The Inner Flame” was pioneered by close friend Howe Gelb, bringing together artists such as Robert Plant & Jimmy Page, Emmylou Harris, Evan Dando, PJ Harvey, Madeleine Peyroux, Victoria Williams, and Giant Sand. Rainer passed away in 1997.