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New Riders Of The Purple Sage

Initially only conceived as a purist country-rock exercise for GRATEFUL DEAD cohorts, Jerry Garcia (pedal steel guitar), Phil Lesh (bass) and Mickey Hart (drums), NRPS have surpassed all expectations, and are still going strong today, albeit with only co-founder David Nelson and a few greenhorns at the helm.
Rewind some forty odd years back to 1969, and inspired the likes of The BYRDS, BUFFALO SPRINGFIELD and The BAND, hippie haven San Francisco was the stamping ground for the aforementioned “Deadhead” stalwarts, together with novice New Riders: John “Marmaduke” Dawson (rhythm guitar/vocals) and David Nelson (lead guitar/mandolin/vocals). Country-rock was on the menu for this loose collective, loose in the sense, that one by one, Lesh, Hart, and Garcia, were beginning to feel the strain of combining extracurricular activities both on stage and in the studio.
While they’d all returned to their day-jobs with the ‘Dead by the time of the eponymous NEW RIDERS OF THE PURPLE SAGE {*8} had appeared for Columbia Records in late ’71, the trio were a welcome presence on the LP; Garcia in a wider role and happy to perform alongside new recruits, Dave Torbert (ex-HORSES) on bass and vocals and Spencer Dryden (ex-JEFFERSON AIRPLANE) on drums; COMMANDER CODY also played piano on two tracks. NRPS had duly become a sizable live draw in their own right, reserving a Top 40 placing for their blend of hippie, acid-country. The 8-minute kaleidoscopic collision of `Dirty Business’ to the dreamy, brittle twangs of `Last Lonely Eagle’, `Portland Woman’ and `Henry’, all had a story to tell through the wit and grit of Dawson.
A new pedal steel player was found in Canadian, Buddy Cage, while the group introduced a driving honky tonk sound reminiscent of a freewheeling FLYING BURRITO BROTHERS; one song that connected the outfits was Joe Maphis’ C&W classic, `Dim Lights, Thick Smoke (And Loud, Loud Music)’, the opener on their Top 40 follow-up album, POWERGLIDE (1972) {*7}. Dawson divvied up the songwriting duties with Torbert, while as proper guest this time around, Garcia delivers on `Sweet Lovin’ One’ and the traditional, `Duncan And Brady’; other covers included ASHFORD & SIMPSON’s `I Don’t Need No Doctor’ (NRPS’s only Top 100 single), GENE PITNEY’s `Hello Mary Lou’ and JOHNNY OTIS’ `Willie And The Hand Jive’.
The group’s followers were cut from the same tribal cloth as those of The GRATEFUL DEAD and, like that act, the band’s live shows were more of an event than a concert. The flipside of this was that the `Riders record sales never reflected their popularity; proof in the pudding was the lowly-placed (No.85), JERRY GARCIA-produced GYPSY COWBOY (1972) {*6}. On a quest to romanticise Americana days of old via the gold rush, bootleg whiskey and stinging women, the group had a tendency toward by-the-book country rock; `She’s No Angel’, a cover of Danny Dill & Marijohn Wilkin’s `Long Black Veil’ and the epic, NEIL YOUNG “Down By The River”-esque `Death And Destruction’.
Better by far, the Norman Puttnam-produced THE ADVENTURES OF PANAMA RED (1973) {*6}, was the band’s fourth album to sell consistently well. A leftover guest from their previous effort, GRATEFUL DEAD songstress Donna Godchaux was drafted in, as well as BUFFY SAINTE-MARIE and the Memphis Horns. Alongside outsider contributions from ROBERT HUNTER (`Kick In The Head’) and PETER ROWAN (`Lonesome L.A. Cowboy’), Torbert, Dawson and Dryden compositions were strapped in next to covers of Will Jennings’ `L.A. Lady’ and The Osborne Brothers’ `Teardrops In My Eyes’.
The early to mid-70s was celebrated as their golden era, but when Torbert left on recording concert set, HOME, HOME ON THE ROAD (1974) {*5}, to team up with another Deadhead BOB WEIR, in KINGFISH, the group’s fortunes dissipated with each subsequent release; their live repertoire included covers of George Hamilton IV’s `Truck Drivin’ Man’, The ROLLING STONES’ `Dead Flowers’ and CHUCK BERRY’s `School Days’.
Ex-BYRDS guitarist, Skip Battin, duly filled the gap for a handful of albums. Featuring the usual array of covers (from DYLAN’s `You Angel You’ to DON GIBSON’s `Ashes Of Love’), 1974’s BRUJO {*5} was little more than a novelty, cowboy-pop excursion that ill-suited a band that could rock with the best of them. OH, WHAT A MIGHTY TIME (1975) {*3} and NEW RIDERS (1976) {*4} comprised a dozen or so covers (and trad ballads) between them, only DYLAN’s `Farewell, Angelina’ and Don Nix’s `Mighty Time’ (from the first of these) and OTIS REDDING’s `Hard To Handle’, LOUDON WAINWRIGHT III’s `The Swimming Song’ and CHUCK BERRY’s `You Never Can Tell’, serving fans with any substance.
Together with Nashville producer Bob Johnston and fresh bassist, Stephen Love (from RICK NELSON’s Stone Canyon Band), WHO ARE THOSE GUYS? (1977) {*3} and MARIN COUNTY LINE (1978) {*2}, were out of touch with the day’s prevailing music and fashion fads. Only the ever-adapting EAGLES could match sales of their more youthful peers, and it was indeed on the cards that M.C.A. gave NRPS the proverbial boot.
As to why A&M gave the quintet another shot for the poorly-received FEELIN’ ALL RIGHT (1981) {*3} was anybody’s guess, but messrs Dawson, Nelson and Cage (plus guitarist/co-writer Allen Kemp and drummer Patrick Shanahan), were always something for the good ol’ boys to sing-a-long. Before NRPS split (Nelson had joined JERRY GARCIA’s Acoustic Band), Dawson and Kemp had recruited Rusty Gauthier, Billy Wolf (bass) and former IT’S A BEAUTIFUL DAY sticksman, Val Fuentes; a live set was recorded for Avenue, but shelved until 1995; it was dedicated to Torbert who died in ’82.
Meanwhile, Dawson re-grouped the band in 1987, taking under his wing, Gauthier, Michael White (bass), Gary Vogenson (guitar) and Greg Lagardo (drums) for the belatedly-delivered KEEP ON KEEPIN’ ON (1989) {*3}; MIDNIGHT MOONLIGHT (1992) {*3} continued the pain until LIVE IN JAPAN (1994) {*4} – featuring three ‘Dead nuggets, `Friend Of The Devil’, `Ripple’ and `Dire Wolf’ – boasted an unlikely oriental alliance.
Country-rock was always at the heart and soul of every roots aficionado, and it was only a matter of time before NRPS would hook up again, only this time David Nelson and Buddy Cage would take up the mantle (Dawson had retired in ’97 to become an English teacher in Mexico; sadly he subsequently died of stomach cancer on July 21, 2009). Enlisting the help of newcomers, Michael Falzarano (ex-HOT TUNA), Ronnie Penque and Johnny Markowski, there was treat for lovers of the CD/DVD package in WANTED: LIVE AT TURKEY TROT (2007) {*6}, a splendid run-through of their best records. Predominantly self-penned studio sets, WHERE I COME FROM (2009) {*6} – augmented by the lyrics of GRATEFUL DEAD poet ROBERT HUNTER – and 17 PINE AVENUE (2012) {*6}, took the new-look NEW RIDERS OF THE PURPLE SAGE full circle, and lifted the long-standing “rock” act back into cosmic proportions.
© MC Strong 1994/GRD // rev-up MCS Nov2012

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