I met ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons once, at the MOJO Honours List in London. He’d come along with Jeff Beck to receive the Gibson Les Paul Award. At the time I had a pretty spectacular beard often referred to as Top-esque. He made a b-line for me on the red carpet and, from behind a well-trimmed chin, he gave it a tug and said, “You’ll have to better than that, fellah.”
Back in 1996, Fuzz magazine (yes, such a thing existed) asked Billy Gibbons if there were any local Arizona players that he dug. “A Czechoslovakian guy that grew up doing his interpretation from Chicago and later Tucson, Arizona called Rainer Ptacek,” he enthused. “He outfitted a combo called Rainer And Das Combo. And later we became friends, I produced a record on him in ‘86 called ‘The Texas Tapes’. Still one of my favourite guitar men.”
‘The Texas Tapes’ finally sneaked out in 1993, some seven years after the release of the Combo’s debut ‘Barefoot Rock’, with a contractually unnamed Gibbons steering the proceedings. It’s the stuff of apocryphal rock legend, a chance meeting that became part of a jigsaw that would eventually have pieces provided by Robert Plant, Emmylou Harris, Evan Dando and a cast of many.
“Few bluesmen have a biog to match Rainer Ptacek,” remarked The Independent on its re-issue back in 2000, as a host of Top sites rumour the mill that the whole of the Top were actually backing Rainer on the recordings – indeed such hyperbole still fills blogs today.
“Though more heavily produced than the original Das Combo effort and a hair less taut, these versions of ‘I Am A Sinner’, ‘The Mush Mind Blues’, ‘Powder Keg’, ‘One Man Crusade’, and ‘Merciful God’ still have a timeless quality,” reckoned The Tuscon Citizen.
So the story goes Gibbons saw Rainer And Das Combo live at Tucson venue Nino’s and, according to Fred Mills in Blurt, “A few years later Gibbons invited Rainer to his studio in Texas to record with him, and the results eventually appeared in ’93.”
Mills also recalls on Rainer’s website how he first came across the guitarist: “Vacationing in London in 1985, I was hanging out one afternoon with some record label people and the publisher of Bucketful Of Brains magazine when someone pulled out a copy of the album (‘Barefoot Rock With Rainer And Das Comnbo’) and asked me if I was familiar with the band, me being from the US and all that. No, I wasn’t, I told them. “This Tucson guy is incredible,” they advised me, with utmost severity. “One of the best guitarists in your entire country.”
No short change there and, as with his original outfit Ginat Sand, the European reputation of the blues man far outweighed his homegrown praise. It started well when Rolling Stone’s Kurt Loder praised the band’s original cassette-only release: “Despite the Germanic moniker, Rainer and Das Combo are a tight Tucson-based trio fronted by songwriter and slide-guitarist Rainer Ptacek, whose singing suggests a cross between golden-age Bob Dylan and Jonathan Richman with a deep case of the blues.” But, it was Europe that really took Rainer to their hearts and would provide the original releases on Demon and then Giltterhouse.
Some 24 years later, ‘The Texas Tapes’ are reissued to commemorate Rainer’s sad death in 1997. The original album is expanded to include four heavier but more spacious Billy Gibbons’ mixes along with a trio of demo’s. Gibbons adds echo, and vast chasms of space, elevating this desert rock to a whole new plateaux, the perfect setting for any sombre bluesman pontificating on life and times and love lost and found.
The album features the glorious ‘One Man Crusade’, which Howe Gelb rates as “one of the top ten best songs ever written. When we did the tribute [record] to him, ‘The Inner Flame’, Wild Seeds’ vocalist Kris McKay did a version of it that is mind-blowing and beautiful. So beautiful.“
It’s a heartbreaker, a tale of good love turned bad and, as is remembered on Rainer’s website, “Love is the most precious of anything in the universe – be it – look for it – love it.”
Dave Henderson May, 2017