An invitation to perform in Oslo, Norway got the ball rolling for a reunion of The Rainmakers. While the Missouri band hadn’t played since the late Nineties, they had maintained a strong following in Scandinavia over the course of their career. Frontman Bob Walkenhorst had also toured with fellow musician Jeff Porter in Norway, keeping The Rainmakers’ presence alive among fans. When a club owner in Oslo, where the popular band had played numerous dates, asked if The Rainmakers would play at the club’s anniversary, the opportunity was too good to resist.
Long story short, Walkenhorst tapped drummer Pat Tomek, bassist Rich Ruth, and Porter to play a series of shows in Norway. Original Rainmaker Steve Phillips keeps an active schedule with his current band The Elders.
“That invitation opened a door in my head,” says Walkenhorst, chatting at record Bar where he has headlined a weekly series of shows with Porter and guest musicians for several years. Silvery charcoal tones color the wild skeins of Walkenhorst’s long wavy hair. “I started writing Rainmakers songs.”
Rainmaker songs have a different attitude than his solo material (The Beginner) or his collaboration with Porter (No Abandon). “My work with Jeff went on an acoustic tangent. It’s more reflective,” Walkenhorst says of the 2009 recording. “I got that out of my system for a while. With The Rainmakers, there’s a kinetic energy that kicked in. It’s still thoughtful, but reflective of the age we’re in. It’s the attitude of a rock-and-roll band, more aggressive.”
The lead vocalist and guitarist wrote half the material last September and polished off the other half in February this year. The dozen songs coalesced into 25 On, the band’s sixth full-length studio album. The title refers to the 25th anniversary of the Rainmaker’s self-titled debut album, marking a career that includes a Best Of album and an Oslo-Wichita Live album in their discography.
As frontman, he has learned to let go of the reins a bit since the early days of his career. On the success of their 1986 debut, The Rainmakers steadily drew a legion of fans and attention from national and international media. At once point, Newsday declared The Rainmakers “America’s Great Next Band.” Now, Walkenhorst is more prone to accept his place in the greater scheme of the world.
“I’m trusting chance and not trying to control everything. I trust the people I’m playing with,” he says. “We’re all better players.”
Rich Ruth traveled from his current home in Nashville with an aluminum upright bass to join his Kansas City-based band mates for recording. The new record was the first Rainmakers project in more than a decade. Overall, the band’s relaxed confidence translated into recording sessions where the songs were nailed after two or three takes. Walkenhorst’s worn blue jean jacket epitomizes his next point. “The reunion felt familiar and comfortable, particularly when the music started.”
25 On was recorded in the sweep of five days and mixed in two weeks. In various conversations, Pat Tomek has marveled at the speed of the process. “Everything just fell into place. The songs sound really good.”
Walkenhorst, an astute songwriting hand, writes in a voice that twangs with sly observation, poignant vignettes, and sarcastic humor. His lyrics are reminiscent of the social commentary and sharp wit of Mark Twain and Will Rogers. As he’s grown older, his point of view has expanded beyond the youthful firebrand that roused audiences with a string of hit singles including “Let My People Go-Go,” “Downstream,” “Small Circles,” and “Spend It On Love.”
“I keep a lot of notebooks with titles written down,” Walkenhorst says. “I drew on them for inspiration. A couple of songs are political [“Half a Horse Apiece”], some are more personal. It wasn’t planned, but these songs are a series of portraits.”
25 On roars out of the gate with the raucous, root rock guitar-driven “Given Time.” Walkenhorst lassos references to religion, rock-and-roll, and a plea for redemption with one more “go around.”
“Vermillion” brawls with a big guitar sound that bolsters the lead vocalist’s wily growl. Porter, the “newest” band member in the mix, electrifies the song with his stylistic licks. Over the course of the album, the songs kick up rhythm and dust balanced by tender melody and piano.
“Missouri Girl” leans on Walkenhorst’s familiar twang, easy to latch onto guitar licks, and steady beats. The lyrics sketch colorful Heartland references:
A Missouri girl, she got a crow over her shoulder
A Missouri girl, she got a twister in her heart
Walkenhorst’s love for his native landscape wends its way through much of his ouevre. From the comic turns of “Downstream” (The Rainmakers, 1986) to the sparkling piano grandeur of “Silver Lake” (No Abandon, 2009), the beauty of natural resources in Missouri and Kansas crop up in his lyrics both as setting and as metaphor. “These Hills” from 25 On is not only an ode to today’s “good stewards of the land,” but it’s also a nod to the generations that came before and those waiting to inherit fence rows, promises, and headstones.
“Kansas City Times” romps like a gleeful hound dog poking its head out of a truck window, tongue and ears wagging in the wind. “‘Kansas City Times’ is about my Dad and me when I was a kid delivering papers,” Walkenhorst says. In the song, he wails on a harmonica as Tomek tamps brushes rhythmically on a cardboard box and acoustic guitars strum with abandon.
Walkenhorst has become a husband and father over the past two decades. Part of growing older and wiser means accepting that the universe doesn’t revolve around the artist and his career, past or present. Paying bills, feeding babies, tending to loved ones – these experiences imprint a perspective that tempers youthful ideals with maturity and awareness.
“When you have kids, you realize you can’t control life,” he says. “I needed children to not be so self-obsessed. Making art is distilling part of your own life. An artist can be trapped in his own head.”
As the elder to two daughters and two granddaughters, Walkenhorst’s writing on “Baby Grand” taps into these feelings and stages of life. “As a grandfather, I’m a link in the chain forward and back,” he says, acknowledging his insignificance in the scope of human endeavor. “It’s my job to keep it going.”
“Last Song of the Evening” is a loving tribute to his mother who moved into a nursing home. Written from her perspective, the song takes flight on graceful, plainspoken words.
It’s getting late, that’s what the weatherman said
I’m dog tired and I’m ready for bed
I’m pulling up the covers all alone
But I’ll be waking up in a carpenter’s arms
Like many compositions on this album and No Abandon, Walkenhorst demonstrates that he’s observing, writing, and expressing in his prime as an artist. The soft burr of harmonica on “Last Song” rubs against polished notes from Porter’s fine piano playing. Tomek and Ruth usher the song along at a respectful pace.
With a wry smirk, The Rainmakers bookend the album with “Go Down Swinging.” It’s for the fighters and the dancers, mind you. The low-key rocker is all elbows and ass and chin jutting out in defiance. Walkenhorst growls are backed by snarling guitars, whomping beats, and chugging bass.
For a band that was inducted into the 2010 Kansas Music Hall of Fame followed by a solid new album and stretch of spring 2011 Norway tour dates, it’s evident that The Rainmakers aren’t resting on their laurels. The band has the talent and gumption to keep plugging and playing, depending on their volition and timetable. This reunion and album was unanticipated but certainly another hallmark in a storied career.
“The arc of a band is like a marriage,” says Walkenhorst. “You have a lot in common. It brings out the the best and worst. When you end the marriage, you don’t go back.”
Maybe The Rainmakers aren’t married to the trappings of a modern day rock outfit or each other. For now, let’s call it a renewed love affair and see where it leads.
Buy the new record 25 On here: http://www.villagerecords.com/product_info.php?products_id=6849
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