There was a time in the ’90s when it seemed like tribute albums were all the rage. What could be easier than asking popular alternative acts of the day to show their appreciation for an influential group or artist from the past such as Led Zeppelin or John Lennon? Why, the money practically printed itself.
Somewhat more rare, and standing on more sombre ground, however, were the benefit discs. 1993 gave us the still classic Sweet Relief tribute to Victoria Williams, while 1996 gave us a follow-up to aid Vic Chesnutt. Maybe it was the fact that Williams and Chesnutt were (and still are) cult figures, but albums like the Sweet Relief collections were two-sided coins that not only put an admired but obscure songwriter in front of listeners, but also introduced them for the first time to many of the bands coming to pay tribute. It might be interesting to hear Sheryl Crow or Hootie and the Blowfish take on a Led Zeppelin song (your mileage may certainly vary) on a standard tribute disc like Encomium, but is there any real potential for surprise or discovery?
One benefit that slipped under the radar at the time was The Inner Flame: A Tribute to Rainer Ptacek. The German-born, Texas-raised, Tucson-residing Ptacek was as responsible as anyone for the ramshackle, dust-swept sound that we associate with bands like Calexico and Giant Sand. Specializing in the Dobro and the National steel guitar and finding his own unique blend of folk and blues, Ptacek exhibited rare feel as a guitarist and songwriter.
After being diagnosed with brain cancer in 1996, and after a brief remission, Ptacek died in late 1997. Inner Flame was released before his death as an attempt to help with medical bills, boasting a lineup which prove that, even if the general music audience was unaware of Ptacek, his fellow musicians knew all about him and appreciated his talents. Not only did it contain contributions from heavy hitters like Robert Plant & Jimmy Page, Evan Dando, Emmylou Harris, PJ Harvey, and Madeleine Peyroux, but it also stood out as a damn fine record. As with the best benefit discs, nearly everyone involved found a way to bring their own personalities into the mix while also honoring just what it was that made Ptacek’s music so special. It didn’t hurt that Ptacek and his trademark guitar sound appeared on a few tracks, providing an emotional and sonic compass for the disc.
Fifteen years later, The Inner Flame enjoys a second life as the opening salvo in a reissue campaign of Ptacek’s catalog as a solo artist and with his band Das Combo. No surprise, it has aged very well. In fact, it might be even stronger since this newer version contains extra tracks by Chuck Prophet, Lucinda Williams, John Wesley Harding, Grandaddy, and Joey Burns & John Convertino from Calexico.
Appropriately, Ptacek’s title track collaboration with Giant Sand still kicks off the disc not only as a showcase for Ptacek’s world-weary voice and slide guitar, but also as a sign of things to come. Song after song, it seems like another kindred spirit approaches the microphone, keying into Ptacek’s vibe. Robert Plant shows up twice, once with Jimmy Page on a minimalist “Rude World” and again with Ptacek on the folk/blues of “21 Years”. Chuck Prophet brings his ragged guitar boogie to “Limit to It”, and Austin’s Kris McKay gives “One Man Crusade” a stellar torch song treatment. PJ Harvey, John Parish, and Eric Drew Feldman bring an aggressive trash can beat to “Losin’ Ground” that’s equal parts Los Lobos and Tom Waits, while Howe Gelb brings his patented looseness to “That’s How Things Get Done”. It’s hard to find a clunker in the bunch.
As in life, Ptacek remains a cult figure. This reissue campaign, and Inner Flame, won’t change that but it might win a few new converts. No longer a benefit with the hope of raising money, Inner Flame now stands as a fitting memorial and gateway disc to a musician who got the chance to release far too little music.