Find a recording of the Grateful Dead at Felt Forum on Dec. 5, 1971, and you’ll hear a remarkable passage late in the show that progresses as “Dark Star > Me and My Uncle > Dark Star > Sittin’ On top of the World”.
What happens is that the Dead pull the mythos and imagism of country Americana from the depths of nebulous improv and then return to those depths as soon as the story — the ramblin’ narrator and his usual tale o’woe — is over. It’s a blending of country and psychedelic rock characteristic of the band in this brilliant era, and when they did pull that kind of thing off, they made it not only convincing, but also sound as if it was the most natural blend in the world.
The music geek term for this type of sound, some variation on “psychedelic cowboy music”, wasn’t really ascribed to the Dead, but to a band very closely associated and that for more than 40 years now — give or take periods of dormancy — has been the style’s most consistent practitioner, the New Riders of the Purple Sage.
The New Riders, who incidentally opened that Felt Forum show, were conceived as a fun experiment — hatched, as the old joke goes, as an excuse for Jerry Garcia to play pedal steel. Early incarnations also featured both Dead drummer Mickey Hart and bassist Phil Lesh, but the New Riders ultimately were not a Dead band. The concept survived that Dead-gone-country incubation and took on a greater life as a self-preserving unit, spun-off from the Dead monolith to survive and thrive on its own.
The lineup that remains its most famous had solidified by 1971: David Nelson, John “Marmaduke” Dawson, Dave Torbert, Spencer Dryden and Buddy Cage. Through proud, lean or nonexistent years hence, the New Riders never quite shed that no-pressure side project vibe, even as it built a formidable body of work and a fanbase that both resides outside and comfortably nestles within the Dead’s own.
What hooked people, it seemed, was that the New Riders’ sound drew heavily on the Bakersfield country beloved by Dawson, as well as the psychedelic rock and foreboding Americana favored by the Dead as it began a shift from the spaced-out late 60s into the Workingman’s Dead/American Beauty era of the early 70s. There are other elements, of course – fiercer forms of rock ‘n’ roll; bluegrass’ energy and precision — but the band in its best formations had the musicianship of a finely-tuned C&W group crossed with a rock adventurer’s taste for improvisation. It worked.
Given all this history, it’s often a surprise to those who got off the proverbial bus a long time ago that the New Riders, in 2012, are going strong, even with 69-year-old Nelson the lone original member. There were few hints of this twilight revival; indeed, the version of the New Riders that went dark in 1982 took both Nelson and Cage out of the band, and while they went on to other projects, the Dawson-led version that was on-again, off-again for the 15 years following had strong musicians but little overall consistency or follow-through. Finally, the Riders concept itself was all but completely shut down in 1997, with Dawson moving to Mexico.
There were encouraging reunion appearances in 2001 and 2002, but a series of starts and stops for a once-formidable band has a way of tempering expectations. Even when Cage’s appearances with the David Nelson Band in 2004 stoked rumors of a full-blown re-booting of the New Riders, the death of drummer Spencer Dryden in 2005 suggested not.
And yet, later in 2005, the current New Riders lineup formed and hit the road, and is now nearly a decade into a bona fide revival that shows no real sign of unsteadiness. Dawson’s a factor in spirit only — though he did bless the band and had made occasional guest appearances before his death from stomach cancer in 2009 — so it’s been up to Nelson and Cage to carry the torch, joined by drummer Johnny Markowski, bassist Ron Penque and multi-instrumentalist Michael Falzarano.
Carry it, they have. Remarkably, they not only solidified as a live unit rehashing the classics, but felt invested enough after a few tours to tackle original material, and have released two albums, 2007’s Where I Come From and this year’s 17 Pine Avenue. Each successfully evokes the New Riders’ classic era: sturdy cowboy songs swathed in folk, blues and psychedelic rock, chugging with rhythm and with ample room for guitar-led exploration.
It’s a long story, but it was one that kept coming to mind during a recent show in New York right after Labor Day. The audience at a latter-day New Riders show, like the three-quarters-capacity crowd that greeted the fivesome at BB King’s, looks much like a latter-day Dead crowd: curious kids, the former tour heads who gave up their bus seats (if not always their tie-dye and grass) for spouses, mortgages, kids and day jobs, and, yes, the folks who in conversation and appearance suggest the bus never stopped.
That’s a lot of nostalgia for one night. And yet, hearing the band stretch out, you’re convinced once again of its place in the fabric of country rock – that that sound it has is so reliable — and also that through its two principal members, it’s bottled that personality. On the one hand, you have Nelson, the sage-like graybeard to whom adjectives like “avuncular” apply: wizened, though not shrunk, in appearance, august like Bob Dylan but not subversive, delivering, never overpowering, tunes with comfortably gritty licks and the ragged, nasally vocals that to a fan are as instantly recognizable as Garcia’s.
On the other hand, you have 66-year-old Cage, who despite this year’s blood cancer diagnosis and subsequent treatments, still has a spark of mischief, his sly fox eyes not much dimmed. Parked at stage right in a hooded sweatshirt and ratty T-shirt — a marked contrast to Nelson’s neat flower-print button-down and crisp hat — he looked weathered but not resigned. Throughout the night he’d get the nod to stretch out: a range of tones from paint-peeler wails to lighter flourishes so sparkly and resonant they sounded almost like bells.
Pedal steel, Cage’s specialty and the secret to the New Riders’ sound, is a deceptively tricky ingredient. You never want it too overpowering or the listener gets too much of that syrupy-sounding filigree, but it’s just too damned expressive an instrument to be relegated to a mere color-and-shading role, especially for a band that favors some degree of jamming. You hear plenty of bands, indie to blues-rock, varied as Wussy, My Morning Jacket and the Black Crowes employ it to different effect, and you find want more of it — it works — though, if you please, not too much.
That’s Cage’s accomplishment: a pedal steel voice that’s neither fully commanding in the sense of, say, a Robert Randolph, where the instrument is right out in front and so in-your-face it’s the entire focus of the band’s sound, or a mere background element, fading into the ensemble as in traditional country and western, there because, well, it’s just supposed to be there, no more hierarchically important than the mandolin, banjo or fiddle.
So much of the current New Riders’ personality draws from these two players, but it’s indeed an ensemble, not hippie-era icons and a backing band. Surrounding Nelson and Cage are Falzarano, Penque and Markowski, all of whom get turns as the mic, and in the first set alone came Penque’s tender “Olivia Rose” and Falzarano’s rollicking rip through “Instant Armadillo Blues”, both of which felt as naturally placed as anything else chosen for the 19-song show.
Most acts this age — let’s call them “vintage,” knowing what we really mean — keep their sets short and close-cropped, thank you, goodnight, back to the bus. But at B.B King’s, theirs was still a full-feeling two sets and two-and-a-half-hour’s worth of music, an earnest exploration of the material from both recent albums mixed with ancient New Riders staples like “Henry”, “Panama Red”, and “Dirty Business.”
Some songs tidied themselves up inside of a few minutes, others protracted past 10, usually vehicles for a country-blues-flavored Nelson solo followed by a spacier Cage one. They do a stellar job with pacing: the chuggers and stompers mixing with pretty and tender moments that arrive like breaks in the action. (Nelson still sings the ancient Scottish folk tune, “Peggy-O”, for example, as delectably as anyone, and the New Riders’ version adds a gently insistent country gallop that gives it a folksier feel than what listeners of the Dead’s version were used to.)
It must be said that these New Riders are rarely all-out exciting — a byproduct of age. There are stretches of shows that can feel quite sedate, quite easygoing, quite smooth and vanilla for a sit-down, glass-of-wine-and-appetizers type of crowd. But then, you’re grateful that this is no geezer country-rock revue — no airs are put on about its senior members’ obvious seniority — or mechanical, Willie Nelsonesque, A-to-B rendering of hits.
The New Riders jam, as capably as most bands with a fifth of their road miles and grit, and also straightforwardly, without much surprise but no danger of the meandering improvisation that can space a segment out and leave it formless. They’re not above throwing the audience a bone — the encore in New York was a spry version of Dylan’s “Rainy Day Women #12 and 35” – but you can rest assured you’ll get the full, old-reliable New Riders experience. Given the history and this unlikeliest of new lease, anything good that comes of the band now is gravy, but they sure don’t play like it.