Jun. 29, 2007 - American Roots
New Riders among acts at American Roots festival
Featured artists at event bring back essence of Grateful Dead
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.'"