Rainer Ptacek was just "Rainer" to music fans who lived here when he was the biggest thing in town. He wasn't exactly Lady Gaga-famous outside Tucson, either, although some of his fans were big-time famous.
Rainer never seemed to care much about becoming big stuff.
Back then, in the 1980s and 1990s, a major-label recording contract was still a big deal and the ticket needed for a shot at a bigger musical career, though certainly no guarantee of a long ride. But even with Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top, Robert Plant and Rolling Stone magazine singing his praises, Rainer didn't seem all that interested, at least not enough to leave Tucson and his family to "make it" by burning up the road for years. He toured and made records, but not at the frantic pace a seriously success- seeking artist, manager or record company might have seen as required.
Rainer died in November 1997 of a brain tumor. During a period of apparent recovery in July and August of that year he recorded an album's worth of new and old material with Giant Sand's Joey Burns on bass and John Convertino on drums. Burns and Convertino, as Calexico, have since gone on to fame. The tracks from those sessions have just been released as "Roll Back the Years," available for download for $11.99 in a choice of digital formats at www.rainer.bandcamp.com
A later album, "The Farm," recorded after he relapsed and not long before he died, was released in 2002. There have also been a number of compilations released posthumously. But "Roll Back the Years" is not one of those scrape-the-bottom-of-the-barrel and check-the-cupboards kind of posthumous efforts so often seen long after a musician has passed on.
"Roll Back the Years" makes you feel like you're in the room with Rainer, Burns and Convertino. There is nothing slick about it. It's just basic tracks, with no apparent isolation between Rainer's lispy voice, that rattling slide roaming the necks of his steel body guitar, Burns' bass and Convertino's drums. It's living room live.
I know people who insist he was trying to sound like Dylan, or some old blues guy. But he never struck me that way. He sounded genuine, like what you heard was what he was meant to do, what he had to do, and he was just letting it fly.
If you weren't around or didn't pay attention to him back in the days when he was the coolest thing around, and want to catch up, this is a good place to start.
As for being the coolest thing in town, I don't think he was trying for that, either. He worked days fixing guitars in the dank, dungeonlike basement of the Chicago Music Store and was a regular sight pedaling around on Fourth Avenue and Congress on his old bicycle. It wasn't exactly the Spandex and sports cars approach to stardom.