Few acts have served as large of a spectrum of music as New Riders of the Purple Sage. These psychedelic country-rock titans have been performing for nearly forty-five years with original members David Nelson (guitar, vocals) and Buddy Cage (pedal steel guitar) keeping the flame burning strong. The group began in 1970 when Jerry Garcia was transitioning the Grateful Dead into country and folk territory. Like most instruments he put his mind to, he took to the pedal steel guitar miraculously quick. When old friend John Dawson approached Garcia with some strong original material, Jerry jumped at the opportunity to form a new group. New Riders of the Purple Sage would perform beside the Grateful Dead at the Fillmore’s of the early 1970s. These were unquestionably quintessential live performances of classic rock and country. The Garcia and Phil Lesh augmented New Riders was short lived as their commitment to Grateful Dead was too demanding. The classic lineup joined Cage and Nelson alongside Dawson to form the core of New Riders of the Purple Sage. So many classic tunes and decades later the band is performing faithful to their foundations.
In light of the untimely loss of John Dawson in 2009, Cage and Nelson found it critical to continue the music of their collective lives. Longtime members Michael Falzarano (guitar, vocals), Ronnie Penque (bass, vocals), and Johnny Markowski (drums, vocals), have kept New Riders cranking out high-energy performances into the 2010s. While steady touring has kept New Riders a popular draw, last weekends Halloween shows at the Sweetwater Music Hall in Mill Valley were particularly special. Psychedelic guitar icon Steve Kimock is no musical stranger to the New Riders, Nelson, or the rest of the gang. Their roots run decades back. Kimock’s inclusion as special guest for October 30th and 31st sold out both Sweetwater gigs quickly. Anticipation was high from the Marin County fan base and the New Riders indeed delivered high-octane gigs supplemented by the charismatic talents of Kimock.
The Sweetwater crowd cheered boisterously as Kimock emerged right as the band took the stage. Nelson greeted the crowd and quipped “We’re going to open the show with the first song off the first album!” As promised the opener was the classic folky “I Don’t Know You.” The song may have introduced many Heads at the time to a broader spectrum of music beyond their rock ‘n’ roll. Ronnie Penque took lead vocals on the definitive “Henry.” Originally sang by John “Marmaduke” Dawson, the audience genially received this telltale of the perils of an international dope runner. “Last Lonely Eagle” displayed Nelson’s gentler vocal abilities. The environmentally minded classic was a crowd favorite and began to display the slower handed talents of both Cage’s authoritative pedal steel and Kimock’s quirky chording. “Dirty Business” was when the jam engine really ignited. Kimock, Nelson, and Falzarano crashed and thrashed back and forth without overcrowding each other’s psychedelically drenched improvisations. The years have not weathered the inventiveness of this group. Quite the opposite indeed! A strong “Ghost Train” closed the first set and truly displayed Kimock’s eclectic jam chops.
The second set kept the high energy cranking with a cover of the Rolling Stones “Dead Flowers,” followed by a longtime favorite “Lonesome LA Cowboy,” originally penned and performed by Peter Rowan. Other second set highlights included the spiritual “Lo and Behold” (a particularly strong performance from Nelson), and “You Never Can Tell,” which gave the New Riders another platform to let their rocking side loose a’ la Chuck Berry. It was hard to believe that it was only night one as the band left the stage after a soaring three hour, two-set performance. Those who were present on Halloween were likely treated to an entirely different set of tunes, as the New Riders tend to make every show unlike the last. Grateful Web was thrilled to part to the penultimate show. Those who missed out on these gigs can catch the incredible David Nelson Band who is beginning their 2015 Harvest Tour with shows mainly in Northern California. Also catch Steve Kimock on tour with the Everyone Orchestra on various East Coast gigs.