Featured artists at event bring back essence of Grateful Dead
By Jonathan Pitts
Originally published June 28, 2007, 4:58 PM EDT
Thirty-eight years ago, during the Haight-Ashbury heyday of West Coast pop music, a gleefully visionary guitarist, Jerry Garcia, couldn't contain himself.
Already the creative force behind the Grateful Dead, the multitalented Garcia kept trying new instruments and forms. He even built a new band -- the New Riders of the Purple Sage, nowadays better known as NRPS -- around his fascination with one of the most difficult stringed instruments, the pedal steel guitar.
"Not to idolize the man, but he was the hippest guy, the most musically dedicated person I've ever been around," says Buddy Cage, who replaced Garcia as NRPS steel player in 1971 and has been in the band more or less ever since. "He was the ringleader, the organizer, the one who pushed everybody to keep coming up with new music. He changed me, and all of us."
This weekend, the reconstituted New Riders -- who call themselves "America's premier psychedelic cowboy band" -- will be one of the headline acts at the American Roots Music Festival in Falling Waters, W.Va., an hour and a half west of Baltimore. During the three-day fest, Donna Jean and the Tricksters (including Donna Jean Godchaux, onetime Dead vocalist) and Melvin Seals and JGB (formerly the Jerry Garcia Band) will also perform.
"The family of musicians coming together for this event," says Jen Morgan of Simon Says Productions, the promoter, "traces their roots back to the origins of the Grateful Dead, exploring a range of music that spans folk, rock, blues and bluegrass."
That's fine with Cage, who first met Garcia when the Dead were on a coast-to-coast rail tour of Canada in 1971 -- the one immortalized in the film Festival Express, released last year. Garcia had been spending so much time playing Bay Area bars and pizza joints with the nascent New Riders, his Dead bandmates told him he had to cut it out. "I have to get back to my day job, guys," he told his NRPS bandmates.
During that tour, he stumbled on Cage, then wowing audiences performing with Ian and Sylvia, a Canadian folk act. "We want you to come in and be the guy," Garcia told him. Cage joined NRPS on pedal steel guitar -- a honky-tonk cousin of the twangy-sounding Hawaiian lap steel guitar, played with a sliding bar -- moved to California, and never looked back.
NRPS music, while it features a lot of onstage improvisation, rests on a foundation of swing-tinged, country-based early original tunes like "Henry," "Dirty Business" and "I Don't Know You." (Most were written by a friend of Garcia's, guitar player John Dawson, who is no longer with the group.)
Two years ago, a newer version of the band -- including Cage, original member/lead guitarist David Nelson, and Hot Tuna guitarist Michael Falzarano -- assembled to record and tour in earnest for the first time in years. Their current repertoire includes many old standards and some newer material.
Falzarano sees the New Riders, who play Friday night at 7, as part of the widespread "jam band" phenomenon the Grateful Dead has inspired over the years, a trend that includes improvisational favorites like Phish and Widespread Panic, whose extended instrumental passages can last a half hour and more.
"Our music is based around familiar, simple songs," says Falzarano, "but each time we perform, the execution is different. It may sound polished, but every night, it's an act of nature."
The same can be said for the music of the reconstituted Jerry Garcia Band (JGB), which plays Friday and Saturday nights, and Donna Jean and the Tricksters (Saturday and Sunday nights), not to mention the other dozen or so groups that will play at an extravaganza sure to be heavy on tie-dye, peasant skirts and cowboy boots.
"It won't be a Jerry fest," says Cage. "But anybody, young or old, who enjoys that broad kind of American music, and what comes out of it, will be happy. In a way, it's still all about 'the Gar.'"
No one is more surprised by the recent revival of the New Riders of the Purple Sage than David Nelson, the band's lead guitarist and singer.
Formed in Marin County in 1969, the New Riders (NRPS) broke through nationally in 1973 with a pair of psychedelic country rock hits, the pot smoker's paean "Panama Red," and the Hollywood rock-star lament "Lonesome L.A. Cowboy," both written by Marin's Peter Rowan.
The New Riders were part of a nouveau country zeitgeist that included urban-cowboy, baby-boomer bands like the Byrds, the Flying Burrito Brothers and Buffalo Springfield.
"We made country music OK for the hip community," Nelson says.
After 13 years with the New Riders, a burned-out Nelson left the band in 1982, when the road-weary group was going nowhere fast.
"It was the disco dark ages," he recalls. "We were hitting the skids. It was costing us to go on the road and I needed a break.
"But everything orbits around, you know, and now they want us back. Can you imagine? A group from 30 years ago. It's totally amazing."
The reconstituted New Riders, with a new live double album recorded New Year's Eve, are enjoying a second coming on the youth-oriented jam band circuit, where they are looked upon as revered elders.
"The amazing thing is we get kids of the kids who were our original fans," Nelson says from his home in Petaluma. "I see kids walking through the audience with vintage New Riders T-shirts. When I ask them where they got them, they say, 'Oh, from my dad.'"
New Riders of the Purple Sage The reconstituted New Riders, with a new live double album recorded New Year's Eve, are enjoying a second coming.
Available as a stream, or free iTunes download.
The 63-year-old Nelson goes as far back as anyone with Grateful Dead icon Jerry Garcia, who died in 1995.
In 1963 in Palo Alto, he, Garcia and his songwriting partner, lyricist Robert Hunter, formed the bluegrass group the Wildwood Boys.
Nelson went on to play guitar on the classic Grateful Dead albums "Working Man's Dead," "American Beauty" and "Aoxomoxoa."
When Garcia wanted to practice a new instrument that fascinated him at the time - the hard-to-play pedal steel guitar - he put the New Riders together.
The first rehearsals were in Garcia's house in Larkspur, when he lived across the creek from Janis Joplin. Nelson, pedal steel player Buddy Cage, who eventually replaced Garcia in the group, and bassist Dave Torbert roomed together in what they call "Kentfield House," a band pad immortalized on the back cover of their debut album.
The fledgling New Riders started as an opening act for the Dead, showcasing the songs of Garcia's friend, John "Marmaduke" Dawson, the lead singer.
After Nelson left the group, Dawson, against Nelson's advice, struggled along as a trio for another 15 years or so. "That's what burns you out," Nelson says.
In poor health in recent years, Dawson has been living in the Mexican artist haven San Miguel de Allende. He isn't part of the new group, although he gives it his blessing. Nelson hopes his frail former bandmate will be well enough to play some gigs with his old pals somewhere down the line.
While the original New Riders were born in Marin, the reformed group is very much an East Coast phenomenon. Nelson is the only West Coast guy in the band.
Two younger musicians, 39-year-old Johnny Markowski of the band Stir Fried, who recently won a Jambands.com contest as the most impressive drummer on the jam band scene, and bassist Ron Penque, once of the Grateful Dead cover band Ripple, were the impetus behind the New Riders revival.
Nelson, who has been touring and building a fan base for his David Nelson Band, was skeptical about any kind of New Riders reunion, seeing no market for it.
But after Markowski and Penque, whom he calls "the kids," put together a sold-out East Coast tour in 2005, he came on board along with Cage, the only other former member of the original group, on pedal steel.
The catalyst was veteran guitarist/singer/songwriter Michael Falzarano of Hot Tuna fame. "He was the key," Nelson says. "He sees a perspective that links the two generations. That made it click."
They recorded the live double CD at the Mexicali Blues Cafe in Teaneck, N.J. Released on the Danville indie label ArSeaEm Recording, it's available online at www.nrpslive.com.
While the band's two hits, "Panama Red" and "Lonesome L.A. Cowboy," are conspicuously absent from this set, the discs feature other NRPS classics such as "Last Lonely Eagle," "Garden of Eden," "I Don't Know You" and "Dirty Business."
In keeping with their new jam-band genre, one song is almost 19 minutes long, another goes on for 16 minutes-plus.
The new New Riders are booked solid through August on the East Coast, their stronghold.
"People come to see us because they realize we're historic," Nelson says. "I guess we fill some kind of gap for them. The interesting thing is that they come to see history, and they end up kind of liking us."
Dead lyricist Robert Hunter suggested the Riders of the Purple Sage, but there had been another old cowboy band with that name, so David Nelson added "New" to make the group unique. Jerry Garcia wanted to call the band the Murdering Punks, but in light of the Charles Manson killings in 1969, the other members didn't think that was such a good idea.
Apr. 20, 2007 - 'New' New Riders still blasting country rock jams
'New' New Riders still blasting country rock jams
From The News Leader - Staunton, Va.
"The Riders", fans' short-hand for the band's proper moniker, The New Riders of the Purple Sage, re-formed more than a year ago after a performing hiatus, and it's playing at an incredible level these days, featuring seminal members David Nelson rocking on guitar and vocals and Buddy Cage playing his unmistakable steel pedal magic. They are joined by Michael Falzarano, of Hot Tuna fame, on guitar and vocals, Ronnie Penque on bass and Johnny Markowski on drums.
The always-energetic Cage, who in between New Riders' shows hosts a provocative Sirius Satellite radio show and is in demand as a session musician for other artists (among past sessions was his contribution to Bob Dylan's "Blood on the Tracks"), talked with The News Leader about the current Riders, the colorful history of the band and just about anything else on his active, agile mind.
Word is that the band has been playing some great shows these days, something Cage confirms. "Sure, it's getting better and better," he said.
As for the "new" New Riders, Cage says, "If it wasn't working right they wouldn't be there. These guys are doing fantastic. That was the thing from the get-go. We told them that 'This is the New Riders of the Purple Sage. Play what you feel.'"
The Riders historically have been known for some of the most serious and solid jamming in all of music, most particularly in country rock. As Cage points out, "we're always a band looking for a train wreck," explaining the band's improvisational dare.
One important member in the history of the group was co-founder John Dawson, known affectionately as Marmaduke. He wrote many of the band's best-known songs, including "Last Lonely Eagle," "Glendale Train," "Portland Woman" and many more.
While illness has prevented Dawson from playing for some time, Cage says his old friend and comrade "is getting better. He's come around."
The group would love to welcome Dawson back into the fold, if only for a show or two. "We've tried to get him out, but some reason or another it just didn't work out," Cage said.
As for his old sidekick Nelson, Cage remarked, "He just goes on and on. He loves it. He's just an old road dog like me. He's written some new things that are just stunning."
The group has two new releases, a DVD/CD set, "The New Riders of the Purple Sage — Wanted Live at Turkey Trot" and an CD recorded last New Year's Eve by Grateful Dead recordists Bob Matthews and Betty Cantor-Jackson, longtime friends of the Riders.
As many know, the Riders have long been part of the extended Grateful Dead family, and it was that connection that led Cage into the band.
Jerry Garcia played pedal steel in the first incarnation of the group. After hearing Cage's incredible playing with Ian and Sylvia, he told the band, "I can't do it anymore. You need a ringer and there's the ringer"
Garcia and Nelson convinced Cage to join, and the rest is history. He describes his longtime association with the Riders as "a cosmic gift." It was — both for him and the fans.
Music and modesty have been the best medicine for Bill Laymon's medical concerns.
Since the journeyman rock bassist and Springfield native contracted typhus from a flea near his Hawaii home, his depleted immune system has warded off encephalitis, he suffered something similar to a stroke and, now, a recurrence of bladder cancer.
Ostensibly, a long list of local talent performing for Laymon on Sunday will do so to raise money for his many medical bills not covered by health insurance.
Laymon acknowledges that purpose, but says that it's not the top priority for him.
"Ultimately, the thing is to have a good party for Springfield," Laymon says. "I have every belief I'm going to get over this health stuff."
Laymon didn't conceive "With a Little Help From His Friends," an eight-hour benefit for the bassist kicking off at 2 p.m. Sunday at the Firefighters Postal Club, 940 West Lake Shore Drive.
It was the idea of Jeff Kornfeld and Ed Fliege (of the Groove Daddies), along with Kornfeld's sister, Jill, his brother-in-law, Byron Francis, and Trout Lily Cafe owner Kate Hawkes.
"We got started on it about a month ago, and it just kind of snowballed from there," says Kornfeld, who will perform with the Groove Daddies at the event. "When word got out, we had a lot of people calling me up and wanting to come play. We had to start turning some people down."
Other acts in the indoor lineup include Black Magic Johnson, Real Time, Micah Walk, Helton Brothers, Moonlite Rhythm Rangers, the Suns of Circumstance, Perfunctory This Band, Sofa Kings and Tom Irwin & Raoul (of Black Magic Johnson).
Just this week, an outdoor stage was scheduled, featuring Eva Hunter, Jill Manning and other acts to be announced.
"All of these folks were magnanimous enough to put something together to try to help me out," Laymon says.
Food and drink will be available, as well as raffle tickets and an ongoing silent auction, for which Laymon says there will be "very special things ... that would be of interest to people who like the kind of music that I've done."
Items include a guitar signed by members of Little Feat, an unopened eight-album box set of Jimi Hendrix music and artwork by local artist Ed Martin. (Anyone who wants to offer something for the silent auction, or make further donations, should call Jeff Kornfeld at 697-5042.)
Laymon graduated from City Day School in 1973; one week after his 1981 graduation from Sangamon State University, he moved to California. He accomplished what he told his friends and family he'd do - play bass for New Riders of the Purple Sage.
The band was a country-music extension of the Grateful Dead, and Laymon joined as it was morphing into an extended-family branch of the Dead and its fans. David Nelson, a founding New Riders guitarist, re-worked the ensemble into the David Nelson Band, with which Laymon has been a regular ever since. He also has filled in for Jefferson Airplane bassist Jack Casady.
Laymon's bout with typhus forced him off a tour with the David Nelson Band, and he came back to the Springfield area about 11/2 years ago to begin a recuperative process. Illnesses haven't slowed Laymon's live endeavors, as he's performed in and around Springfield since his return.
Lately, he's been connecting with friends from bluegrass jam-band Leftover Salmon as they've passed through central Illinois. He surprised Vince Herman during a solo gig in Peoria.
"The last time I saw him was a festival in Colorado, which was my last gig on tour before I fell off with illness," Laymon says. "I walked into the place, Vince looked at me and said, 'You're still alive!' I did the whole show with him, and the place went bananas. I think people were glad to see me out and playing."
That gig got Laymon a "way-over-sold-out, rip-snortin' good time" opening gig for fellow Salmon player Drew Emmitt, when he played Capital City Bar & Grill in Springfield last month.
Laymon looks forward to the good time of getting onstage Sunday and jamming with all of his friends who have come together.
"All those years I've been out there playing and all the things I've done," Laymon says, "I've always tried to let people know I did it for all of us in Springfield."