The Inner Flame Third Anniversary Memorial Show – Solar Culture (Tucson, AZ)
Some 300 fans gathered at no-smoking, BYOB, ad-hoc music venue Solar Culture, a co-op art gallery in a warehouse alongside the railroad tracks in downtown Tucson. Many more listened via the community radio station KXCI, while Rainer Ptacek fans around the world tuned in via KXCI’s website. On the eve of the third anniversary of his death, we came not to grieve Rainer, but to celebrate the heck out of him.
Named for the first song he wrote and recorded after his first seizure from brain cancer, and for his benefit record released in 1997 (featuring tracks by Robert Plant, PJ Harvey, Emmylou Harris, Victoria Williams & Mark Olson, Vic & Tina Chesnutt, Jonathan Richman and others), The Inner Flame show was organized by a cast of Rainer’s family and close friends, including Giant Sand, Calexico and Kris McKay.
Rainer’s presence enveloped showgoers from the moment they set foot on the steps, where they could hear from the PA inside his evocative, painterly slide guitar and vocals that seem to arise directly from the complexity of his soul. Rainer’s widow, Patti Keating, had printed for guests a souvenir photo accompanied by a short essay he’d written about finding peace facing death. It concludes, “I did make peace. That’s why now I am different….This is all an incredible opportunity that most don’t get a chance to feel.”
Austinite and former Wild Seeds member McKay opened the show, all but stunning the congenial crowd into silence with the ringing clarity and emotion of her singing. Burns joined her for a heartstopping duet on Steve Earle’s “Goodbye” as Convertino played winces of pain with a bow on vibraphone. Her inspiration for the cover, McKay said, was that upon returning from the hospital after the safe and happy delivery of his daughter Lily, Rainer and his son Rudy played Emmylou Harris’ Wrecking Ball. Similarly, she noted that Rainer’s love of the Everly Brothers prompted the next duet, “I Wonder If I Care As Much”.
A booming grita and cheers arose in front and rolled through the crowded gallery as members of the personality-packed Mariachi Luz de Luna began joining Burns and Convertino onstage. With a guitarron for color, a band hardly needs any other, but two trumpets raised the roof at just the right moment and sent thrills through the crowd that played out in rhythmic clapping, stomping, dancing and an altogether sexy pandemonium. And that was even before the piercing, perfectly timed whistles of trumpeter and band clown Ruben Moreno. Even Gelb donned a sombrero and joined the fun on piano. The rousing set included two Calexico singles available only in the U.K., “The Ballad Of Cable Hogue” and “The Crystal Frontier”, both lengthy story-songs with enough drama for a movie score. The Mariachi Luz closed with their signature song, “Tema De Mariachi” from the soundtrack of Desperado.
After that, the thrills all came from Rainer in a rare treasure of a just-about-perfect Giant Sand set. Sensing the peak emotion in the crowd, Gelb opened with “The Inner Flame”. Kris McKay’s harmony vocals were a shimmering counterpoint to his rough-and-tumbleweed delivery.
Craig Schumacher sat in on vibraphone, harmonica and occasional percussion. It was to his recording studio, Wavelab, recording home of Giant Sand and Calexico, that Gelb coaxed Rainer for sessions in his last year. Jacob Valenzuela, a frequent contributor to Calexico projects, contributed color on trumpet.
McKay delivered a rock-angry, gender-bent interpretation of Rainer’s “One Man Crusade”, her track on The Inner Flame album. As the song came to a close, Gelb picked up on the rhythm of an oncoming train, and the rest of the band picked up the tempo. “Rainer loved trains,” he said, and as it passed he led the band into a chorus of “When The Saints Go Marching In”, followed by a cover of Elvis’ “I Can’t Help Falling In Love With You”, with McKay and Burns on harmony vocals.
The evening’s hardest rock moments started with Gelb pounding a boogie rhythm on an upright piano with the hammers exposed. Schumacher blew in on a lowdown, dirty harmonica solo, and the band rendered an earthquake of a “Poor Backslider” that all but knocked the paintings off the walls. At the opposite end of the emotional spectrum was McKay’s wrenching, nuanced “Pastime Paradise”.
From then on, the set was dominated by Giant Sand moments — something close to pure Gelb. Trying, or not, to end the set, Gelb opened up a surf riff joined by Burns on guitar and then evolved into several bars of Cream’s “Sunshine Of Your Love”, which rolled into a guttural, heavy metal break and some fragments of “The Beat Goes On”, followed by goofy piano nonsense which Burns and Convertino turned into a dark, carnival midway soundtrack. Grabbing Schumacher’s harmonica mike for a megaphone effect, Burns thanked the crowd, none of whom moved a muscle in the direction of the doors. Gelb responded by playing, “Loving Cup” and “Long Stem Rant”, which pass for standards in the Giant Sand oeuvre, perhaps in hopes that’s what the fans were waiting for.
But not until the band unplugged their instruments and Gelb asked “Don’t you have some Rainer music you could put on the PA?” did it sink into the crowd that the show was over. It’s entirely likely they all took it with them, like Rainer’s music, out to the streets of the Tucson night, with the train rolling in the background, and into the rest of their lives.