The Rainmakers Find Heaven and Hell in the Heartland

by Jedd Beaudoin

22 September 2014

Since the early '80s, The Rainmakers have been among the best bands to emerge from the Heartland Rock boom of that decade. They may be the best that's still at it.
 
cover art

The Rainmakers

Monster Movie

(Bat)
US: 16 Apr 2014

Rest easy, America. It’s 2014 and the horrors that have plagued us as long as we can remember are still around. War. Pestilence. Monopolies. Sandwich shop workers who can’t find the meatballs for your sub at two in the morning.

Those fears and observations are part of the most recent album from Kansas City, Missouri’s The Rainmakers, a little ditty called Monster Movie. The record captures the veteran band in its sonic glory, sounding in tune with the quartet’s reputation as an exceptional live act that’ll make you shake your tail feather and tickle the ol’ mental lobe. Opening with “Shithole Town” and closing up with “Swingin’ Shed”, the 12-song hootenanny does what the band has done since breaking onto the national scene round about the time that Ronald Reagan was halfway through his second helping of Cold War. Which is all of what’s been mentioned above and then some.

Fact is, you could almost take a time machine back to 1986, sing some of these songs and have folks stand up and say, “Damn. Those are songs for these times.” Indeed, like the caretaker in The Shining these songs have always been. Monster movies served as metaphors for all kinds of wild get out stuff back in the day, everything from the arms race to racism to fear of the Godless Communists. And the monster movie in question here is no different now than it was then, nor are the themes all that far removed from the ones on the first Rainmakers album.

The group began deep in the pocket of the early ‘80s as Steve (Phillips), Bob (Walkenhorst) and Rich (Ruth), formed the trio that garnered a good deal of attention for its live shows up and down the strip of highway from Kansas City to Wichita and outlying areas. Said attention earned the band a deal with Mercury records and in 1986 the group released its debut album, The Rainmakers, which was smart and smart-assed (but endearingly so).

Sure, there was fodder for the dance floor (“Big Fat Blonde” that could be construed as dumb fun with a capital M), but there were examinations of the American welfare system (“Government Cheese”, which may just as well have been an examination of corporate welfare), the jagged remnants of the American dream (runaway or otherwise) via “Drinking on the Job” and bits and bobs of life in the heartland.

“Rockin’ at the T-Dance” recalled the 1981 collapse of a walkway at a Kansas City hotel in the midst of a dance competition; “Downstream” called upon the spirits of Mark Twain, Harry Truman and ol’ Chuck Berry as the drift together in a boat and talk about the past. (God, it turns out is “an Indian giver” and Truman would rather tug on a bottle of brown liquor than talk about The Bomb.) Between all that and the (Missouri native) Thomas Hart Benton paintings gracing the first album’s cover, you got the sense that this was a group that was speaking from the Plains even if the language wasn’t always plainly spoken.

In the ‘80s we were reminded about all that came from the heartland, thanks to a beer commercial and what we would today call branding of that downhome vibe. The language shifted somewhere around the end of the decade so that we were to no longer speak of the Midwest but rather, of the Heartland. And maybe some of that’s true, as bands such as The Rainmakers and BoDeans began to make their way toward the brass ring with sounds that were honed by playing bars out on the dusty roads and in second cities.

Come 1988’s Tornado, some of the fervor over heartland rock may have died down a little, but that did nothing to calm Walkenhorst & Co.’s fires. Walkenhorst dug into the well of religion for one of his best tunes, “The Wages of Sin”, in which our narrator tries to determine what the best path to salvation is. Can you party? Surely, Walkenhorst seems to argue (and not for the last time), if there’s a God he has a sense of humor and likes to have a good time.

There were signs that the band—by now with drummer Pat Tomek firmly in the ranks—had matured from its club days via the gorgeous ballad “Small Circles” and tunes such as “The Other Side of the World” and “One More Summer”, which didn’t forsake the ass-shaking attitude of the first record but didn’t apologize for having more to say.

The record also contained a slice of true Americana, the urban legend/folktale “The Lakeview Man”, the tale of that creature/man who lives on the outskirts of town and who may or may not be dangerous, depending on who happens to be looking for him or how deeply they believe in the myth.

He may be a troubled veteran or he may be someone who suffered some sort of other tragedy or he may not be human at all and the questions rather than the answers make him all the more interesting. It’s a song no doubt inspired by Walkenhorst’s upbringing on the rural fringes of Missouri, where such men and such creatures surely exist, but it spoke to the heart of every small town from the Great Lakes to the Great Plains and beyond.

Stories such as that and our belief in them may have been vanishing when 1989’s The Good News and the Bad News rolled around. With a new president in office and a country that had grown weary of the Cold War and a wedge driven between its classes, there was plenty to talk about and “Spend It On Love”, the album’s first single, captured all of it in a succinct three minutes.

You might have been forgiven if, upon hearing it, it was a song penned in the dimming days of the ‘60s with its concerns for social justice and equality, but the scary part of the song is that those concerns were alive and just as troubling 20 years later (and 25 years later, too). With songs such as “We Walk the Levee” and “Dry Dry Land” on hand to speak for those who could not speak, the record served as much as a piece of entertainment as it did a state of the union report.

 

One year and a live album (Oslo-Wichita Live) later the band had folded. The reasons don’t matter but conjecture might allow that poor record sales and changing industry trends had something to do with it. There have been rumblings of internal frictions and, besides, someone had to make way for the last great wave of American regional music in the last century, grunge.

Flirting with the Universe (1994) saw the quartet return in fine form with what some fans consider the best Rainmakers album. But things got strange on the dark, Skin (1996). The record probed issues of adulthood and sexuality and in some ways may have served better as a Walkenhorst solo album. Something must have been amiss as the band called it a day in 1998.

Thirteen years later the band was back without Phillips but with a new guitarist (Jeff Porter) and new record, 25 On, the sound of men who’d matured and were contemplating a new act in life. It was good, but not as uncompromising as previous recordings. Still, the band managed to fill rooms in its native Kansas City and wow audiences in other longtime strongholds and come 2014, The Rainmakers returned with confidence on the aforementioned Monster Movie, an album that, as mentioned, plays to the band’s greatest strengths and deepest, darkest obsessions with an honesty that isn’t always pretty but is decidedly part of The Rainmakers’ vision.

Once more questions about meaning abound (“13th Spirit”, “Who’s At The Wheel”) and the fear that we are all floating on one doomed raft together remains. But, as Bob Weir once sang, if we’re going to hell in a bucket at least we’re enjoying the ride and The Rainmakers demonstrate on this new album and on the stage that the ride remains worth it even if the scenery ain’t always pretty.

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Above press photo from Rainmakers.com.

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