The most striking credit on this tribute to Tucson’s Rainer Ptacek reads “Executive Producers: Robert Plant and Howe Gelb.” That Led Zep’s preening pretty boy and Giant Sand’s desert visionary should find common bond in the musical inspiration of Rainer attests to a gravitational pull far stronger than the artist’s name recognition. It is likely that most who purchase The Inner Flame for its stellar lineup of Plant and Jimmy Page, PJ Harvey, Emmylou Harris, Giant Sand and others will be hearing Rainer’s music, maybe even his name, for the first time.
Though patterned after the Sweet Relief fund-raisers for Victoria Williams and Vic Chesnutt — both of whom appear here — Rainer’s bluesy mysticism and elemental imagery casts the contributions of even the familiar artists in fresh light. The impetus for the project came from Rainer’s brain tumor, for which treatment and bills remain, though the cancer is apparently in remission. Most of the tracks feature the tonal shadings of Rainer’s National steel guitar; a couple of others find Giant Sand serving as house band. But the unifying principle is the organic suggestiveness of his material, an introspective, spiritualized brand of blues that is more a feeling than a form.
Highlights range from Harris’ sepulchral rendition of “The Good Book”, with Rainer providing instrumental support, to a blistering finale of “Powder Keg” that finds Buffalo Tom’s Bill Janovitz fronting Giant Sand. A breathy Evan Dando, backed by Rainer and Gelb, shows a lot more emotional depth on “Rudy With a Flashlight” than he has generally revealed as a Lemonhead, while Chicago’s Drovers rise from obscurity on “Worried Spirits” to deliver one of the collection’s most satisfying tracks. The Plant/Page “Rude World” and Harvey’s “Losin’ Ground” sound like abrasively electronic companion pieces, while Plant’s collaboration with Rainer on “21 Years” finds them riding a “Mystery Train” groove into the heart of darkness. The bittersweet instrumental of “Broken Promises” shows a surprisingly sophisticated side of guitarist Jonathan Richman.
On the album-opening title track, Rainer asks “How’s your inner flame/Does it still burn a lot/Do you complain when it’s too hot?” On the closing “Powder Keg”, his lyric promises, “If your life gets too dark/Call me and I’ll be the spark.” Throughout the rest, the flame burns.