Tucson lost one of its finest friends when blues singer and songwriter Rainer Ptacek died as a result of a brain tumor and lymphoma Nov. 12, 1997, but already he had given listeners here and around the world a lifetime's worth of gifts through his music.
Even now, five years later, his last recorded work touches us. Recorded only a few weeks before his death, the new album The Farm recently was released on Germany's Glitterhouse Records.
Rainer--as he was known professionally and personally--recorded these 18 tracks off and on during over the course of a few weeks in October 1997, writes longtime friend Howe Gelb (of Giant Sand fame) in the CD's liner notes. Rainer at this time experienced intermittent periods of lucidity as his brain and body coped with the ravages of cancer and chemotherapy.
As Gelb points out, Rainer knew he hadn't much time left, and his singular vision now included both sides of the divide between life and death.
The recordings were made with the production assistance of Gelb and Harvey Moltz. For the group arrangements, Rainer was reunited with drummer Ralph Gilmore and bassist Nick Augustine, his favorite rhythm section and the most popular version of his band, Das Combo.
But The Farm notably includes some astonishing solo acoustic work--several instrumentals, in fact--on which Rainer uses only his Dobro or National steel-bodied guitar as a vehicle for his haunting genius.
Many have compared Rainer's playing to that of Ry Cooder and John Fahey. They're not wrong; he has the searing fire and romanticism of the former and the whimsy and folk inventiveness of the latter. But these final stunning acoustic reveries are evidence that his sound was unmistakably, uniquely Rainer.
There is much on this CD that will remind die-hard fans of the Rainer of old. Familiar touches include the raucous opening track, "Junkpile," which owes its melody and lyrical structure to an earlier tune, "Powder Keg," and the gorgeous waltz "Where We Are," to which Gelb adds sympathetic keyboard fillips.
But fans may be caught unaware of the beautiful, fragile melodies of "Oasis," which call to mind the tradition of eerie English folk music, from Martin Carthy to Nick Drake. The almost dissonant guitar explosions of "Here I Am" and "Arabing" display a newfound creative direction.
There isn't a weak cut on the album, but its masterly centerpiece clearly is the title track, a chilling song that conflates memories of Rainer's childhood, a bittersweet examination of life's struggles, the nature of metaphysical communication and his love for then-toddler daughter Lily. Even listeners who didn't already know Rainer's music, or didn't know the man, will find themselves overcome by a flood of emotions as this song spins.
Some posthumous album releases seem to have specious or questionable motives, but there is no denying the appropriateness of The Farm. It is an elegant coda from a truly great artist. Many thanks are due to Gelb, Moltz and Rainer's widow, Patti Keating, for making available this timeless, priceless music.
The Farm is available at Hear's Music, 2508 N. Campbell Ave., or by mail order--if you know German--from www.glitterhouse.com.