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Panama Red rides again

David Nelson fronts revived New Riders at Bearsville New Year’s Day

by Bob Margolis
December 30, 2010 12:33 PM | 0 0 comments | 17 17 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Silver linings: When his band took a break from the road and seemed unlikely to be revived, guitarist/songwriter David Nelson was able to play in all sorts of settings, including a Grateful Dead tribute project and a serious immersion into zydeco. He also worked in his Northern California home studio on developing electronic chops with a sequencer, which wound up serving as a catalyst for a whole new backlog of songs. Those tunes see the light of day through the David Nelson Band, and the newest version of his beloved New Riders of the Purple Sage (NRPS). The NRPS’s lead guitarist and singer might agree with the old saying, “All good things in all good time.” The Riders return to the Bearsville Theater for the annual Burt’s Electronics post- Christmas show on New Years Day, 1/1/11.

“I played a few gigs with Buddy Cage some years ago, and it was a blast; so when they asked if I was into getting the New Riders going again, I answered, ‘Of course! But are there any gigs?’” Nelson said from his Petaluma home. The comeback run back East in late 2005 sold out immediately after the shows’ announcements, and since then the revamped band has continued to crank out a handful of enjoyable records. But like just about every band linked to the jammy world, the live gig is their comfort zone.

Drummer Johnny Markowski of the band Stir Fried and bassist Ron Penque, once of the Grateful Dead cover band Ripple, were already accomplished players and wound up being the impetus behind the New Riders revival – a logical step for the pair after playing some gigs with pedal steel legend Cage. Nelson was naturally a tad skeptical about the market for the NRPS, but after watching their East Coast run sell out so quickly, came on board along with the only other original NRPS member, Cage. The final selling point came with the inclusion of guitarist/singer/songwriter Michael Falzarano, he of Hot Tuna fame.

Formed just north of San Francisco in Marin County in 1969, the New Riders were already quite well-known within the Grateful Dead’s orbit, in part because of Garcia’s inclusion in the early incarnations of the band by the early 1970s. 1973 was their national radar breakthrough when a pair of psychedelic country rock hits, the pot-smoker’s paean “Panama Red” and the Hollywood rock-star lament “Lonesome LA Cowboy,” hit it big. 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 okay 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 Dark Ages – meaning the time of disco – and it was costing us way too much to go on the road and it was not economically feasible. I needed a break.”

The reconstituted New Riders, with a (kinda) new record out, are enjoying a second coming on the youth-oriented jam-band circuit, where they are looked upon as revered elders. Of course, Nelson is forever linked to going back with Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter all they way to 1963, when all three were part of the bluegrass group the Wildwood Boys. Nelson also played guitar on the classic Grateful Dead albums Workingman’s Dead, American Beauty and Aoxomoxoa.

Years later, Garcia turned to Nelson when he put together his acoustic version of the Jerry Garcia Band (JGB), peaking with a historic series of gigs at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater on Broadway in 1987. “He always played the acoustic guitar at home or with friends. So he didn’t need to really take time out to sharpen those chops. Plus, he was also doing a number of duo gigs with [longtime foil in the JGB, bassist] John Kahn.”

At the time, Garcia was looking for an antidote for the searing electric musical mayhem that he orchestrated. So, as a way to shed on the pedal steel guitar, he put the New Riders together. The first rehearsals were in Garcia’s house in Marin County, when he lived across a tiny creek from Janis Joplin. Nelson, pedal steel Cage (who replaced Garcia in the group) and bassist Dave Torbert all lived 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. In poor health for years, Dawson passed away in 2009 from stomach cancer after living in the Mexican artist haven San Miguel de Allende. He gave the revitalized NRPS his blessing and came up to the Bay Area for a few one-off gigs.

Okay, but what’s up with the name? Dead lyricist Robert Hunter suggested the Riders of the Purple Sage, but there had been another old cowboy band with that name, so Nelson added “New.” 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.

Professor Louie and the Crowmatix will open this Bearsville 7:30 p.m. January 1 gig. For tix, call the Theater at (845) 679-4406, visit Burt’s Electronics on 549 Albany Avenue in Kingston or call the store at (845) 331-5011. Admission is $30.

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