The New Riders of the Purple Sage
All In The Family
The New Riders of the Purple Sage Return – and Pitch In for Rex
By Mary Eisenhart
Before the New Riders of the Purple Sage, the Grateful Dead and the Rex Foundation formally existed, their roots were inextricably tangled. So when it came to doing a benefit for Rex on November 18 in New York, it was all in the family; guitarists David Nelson and Michael Falzarano had pitched in at an earlier Rex benefit with the Zen Tricksters and Donna Jean Godchaux, and Nelson had contributed a great set with fellow old-folkie pals of Jerry Garcia at the Comes a Time benefit at the Greek last year. Once the New Riders had officially re-formed, a benefit with the whole band was only natural. As Falzarano put it the week before the concert, “The whole band is really looking forward to this as probably one of the most important club events we’re doing this year, not only because we’re playing New York City but because we’re tied in with the Rex Foundation, which also ties into the Grateful Dead family.”
As cofounder David Nelson tells it, the saga began in the early ’60s when his pal Rodney Albin announced, “‘We’re going to go down to Kepler’s bookstore in Palo Alto where they have the beatniks’. He took me and (younger brother) Pete Albin (later of Big Brother and the Holding Company) down there to meet Jerry Garcia.
“We were playing folk music at the Boar’s Head, this tiny room upstairs in a bookstore, about the size of a regular bedroom. These various eccentrics would come up and play: Jerry would play, and Bob Hunter would sometimes come up and sing one. Pigpen showed up, this kid Ronnie McKernan.”
In the intense scene that followed over the next few years, bands formed, dissolved and formed anew at lightning speed, and everyone spent a lot of time playing in each other’s groups. “Everything from 1962 to 1965, it seems to me like about 10 years’ worth of stuff,” Nelson says now. “It was, come over to my house – I’m playing in another band, but I can do this for now. That’s how the New Riders got started, because we were all in the same community.”
Fast forward to 1968, with Garcia in the Grateful Dead, Nelson in an outfit called the New Delhi River Band, and John “Marmaduke” Dawson – who, along with a young Bob Weir, had been part of a pack of younger kids hanging around their scene (“We were like, “Get lost, kid!'”) – bugging Nelson to come down to hear some new country-tinged tunes he’d written. Meanwhile, Garcia had been getting the itch to play pedal steel. “He used that as a vehicle for “I’ll be your sideman,'” Nelson recalls, “and so we played at a pizza parlor, and then it got serious. There was enough attention and buzz about it that I thought, yeah, we might do well to try this.”
The idea simmered for the next few months while everyone pursued other interests – “It was, “As long as you’re in San Francisco, why don’t you come up to Jerry’s house and we’ll play in his living room?’ That’s how it started,” Nelson says. “It was right around the moon shot, where they actually walked on the moon. So we’d sit there and play, and watch that, and play some more. It was really great.
“Our first gig was the Bear’s Lair student union at Cal, and we didn’t know what to call the band, other than Murdering Punks,” Nelson laughs. “You get started on funny names and it won’t stop, you know? Hunter came up with the name ‘Riders of the Purple Sage,’ and I said there already was a Riders of the Purple Sage, Foy Willing and the Riders of the Purple Sage in the ’30s and ’40s. I said, how about ‘New’? John said, “You just like bands with the word “new” like “New Delhi River Band”.’ (laughs) That’s how it became New Riders of the Purple Sage.”
The initial lineup featured Dawson and Nelson, along with Garcia on pedal steel, Phil Lesh on bass, and Mickey Hart on drums. “Pretty soon we realized when the Dead go on a tour, all we have to bring is two guys, me and John, and we’ll have a whole nother band,” Nelson laughs. “So that was cost-effective. Phil played bass for a while, and then (New Delhi River Band bassist Dave) Torbert came back from Hawaii. Now it’s only three guys, still pretty good.”
The band caught the eye of record mogul-in-the-making, Clive Davis, and soon had an attractive record deal. They also had ongoing personnel shifts; when Garcia left to focus on the Dead and his other side bands, pedal steel player Buddy Cage took over and stayed for many years. Former Jefferson Airplane Spencer Dryden did a stint on the drums.
The core of Nelson and Dawson remained throughout. What also remained throughout was a growing body of great tunes, because Nelson, Torbert, and in particular Dawson were great songwriters, and Hunter was known to contribute a song or two from time to time. But, by the early ’80s, the New Riders had disbanded and their members were off pursuing other interests, though in the years that followed Dawson would periodically front a band under that name.
Fast forward again to mid-2005, when Cage, who’d worked on lots of live and studio projects in the interim, was playing a round of golf with drummer Johnny Markowski, with whom he’d worked in an indie-rock band called Stir Fried. Markowski was working on a solo album and had recruited Cage; the subject of guitarists came up, and Cage suggested Nelson.
Markowski remembers, “I said, ‘If you’re going to put David Nelson on the record you ought to get the New Riders back together.’ At first (Cage) was kind of like, no. And then three holes later he looked at me and said, “I’m going to call Nelson tonight.'”
A potentially fatal problem was that by this time, cofounder Dawson was in poor health, retired from performing and living in Mexico, and there was no way he could be part of this version of the Riders.
“There is no taking over John’s position,” says Cage. But bassist Ronnie Penque, another bandmate from Stir Fried, had long had his singing voice compared to Dawson’s and had spent years in a Riders cover band. “Then (rhythm guitarist Michael) Falzarano came in from Hot Tuna,” Cage says, “and he had other songs, some of his favorite Dawson tunes and a couple of Torbert tunes. Everybody kind of came in to plug the hole.”
Somewhat reluctantly, Nelson agreed to take part, once the band was actually booked for five gigs. “Nelson and I agreed, if it doesn’t cut it at the end of these five days, so what, it’s just a week’s worth of gigs,” says Cage. And when they got together, it was a little rocky, Nelson recalls: “We rehearsed for one day and immediately realized there were not going to be any arrangements here, because in one afternoon of rehearsal we had to do 30 or 40 songs. But we kept on it and just played with eye contact on stage. There were many, many train wrecks.”
But when the band hit the road, no one had to worry much about train wrecks. “We all met for five days, kind of as a goof, timidly,” says Penque. “And then we sold out every show, we hit it off chemistry-wise, personality-wise, music-wise – it was just great. We gave it to the agents for the next shows, and those all sold out; the music kept growing, and got better and better, and it’s been a home run ever since.”
After a summer of warm receptions on the festival circuit and the Rex benefit in November, the Riders are off on short tours of the East Coast. (Details). We got a chance to speak with the new and old New Riders a few days before the November benefit.
Rex Foundation: So how has this new version of the New Riders been working out?
Buddy Cage: We did those first five dates, and at the end of it we were laughing. We played it so well, and there was so much promise to build on. It just floored us, so we just kept it up, and all the enthusiasm and hard work we’ve had from Team NRPS, if you will, has been amazing.
Ronnie Penque: The band members’ relationship is very fresh and healthy and good – and the music is, more importantly – and the people see that. They see us having tons of fun onstage, entertaining ourselves, cracking jokes – it rolls offstage, and then they pick up on that.
Michael Falzarano: It’s been a great journey so far. We’ve had a wonderful experience; it’s been a little over a year, and the enthusiasm from the fans and our musician friends has been overwhelmingly positive. When we get together we have fun; I think that shows, and I think people enjoy that.
Aside from whether the execution of the music is good or not – that’s not for me to say – the songs that John Dawson wrote are really great songs that stand up today just as they did then.
Rex: John Dawson has always been such a crucial figure in the New Riders; how has it been being out on the road without him?
Falzarano: If John at some point is able to come out and join us, that would be fabulous. He is loved, and people would love to see him come and be a part of this. We all hope that that can happen.
The fans have been very open to the situation. Even the older fans have said, “It’s a shame he can’t be a part of it, but it’s really great and we’re having a great time.” If John were able to do it, he’d be there with us, and it would probably still be the same band with John in the band.
My understanding is that he’s just not healthy enough for the rigors of touring. It’s very difficult; everybody thinks you sleep till noon, you get up, you have lunch and you leisurely go over to the place where you’re playing. And it’s not that way. It’s really pretty grueling. We played a three-hour show, we didn’t get out of the venue till four in the morning, we didn’t get to the hotel till five in the morning, we had to be up by 11 in the morning…
David Nelson: We went through the whole bus nightmare thing; for a while, every single day some little thing would malfunction to make it break down. We had to go from New York to Richmond, Virginia with one fog light. No headlights, just one fog light. That’s pretty scary. And then the air conditioning goes out and the back room is 120 degrees… but you can’t stop, because you’ve got to get to the gig.
Falzarano: So John might be able to join us at some point, maybe join us and sing a few songs. But I think the current lineup is trying to stay true to his vision, and we’re playing his songs, and we’re not drifting too far from the shore, so to speak. Although we are expanding the songs and jamming more than they used to on the songs back then, I think.
Johnny Markowski: Dawson writes such great songs – every song is so much fun to play. Every time we play it it’s a little different twist; I don’t think David or Buddy plays the same solos, I think they’re getting to take it out to another improv level.
Nelson: I’m playing more guitar than I ever have – me and Cage are just taking it. As much as we want, we’re just playing and playing and playing on any given song.
Penque: From Day One these old songs of the New Riders started growing and growing. And a year later, they’re just tremendous. There’s all these tree branches coming out of each song, and they’re never boring. As a result, we’ve just expanded the jams; we’re going new places with them, and it’s fun every night.
Markowski: I did the first new New Riders original called “Higher,” and we’ve been playing a new one of David’s called “Every Naked Eye.” Michael Falzarano writes great songs, David Nelson writes great songs. Ronnie Penque writes great songs. Buddy Cage is a really great bridge builder in a song. Everybody knows everybody has the ability to write, and it’s floating in the air.
Nelson: There’s a quality to the New Riders for us to last all these years, and then come back and still be successful. There’s something about the image that it creates in people’s minds. People of all ages can have that: “‘New Riders of the Purple Sage’ – yeah, I like that.” Something about it creates images in your mind. That logo – it’s something you can have, it’s yours.
Rex: What are the audiences like?
Markowski: The first few runs, I noticed that the crowd were older, original New Riders fans. The cool thing is, we’re starting to see a lot of younger people come out as well. It’s kind of cool to see a whole new generation that are kids to me, even, who are out there loving these songs. It makes you feel, wow, these songs really are timeless.
Falzarano: The balance is shifting. Some of the older people that came to check it out once or twice – they have lives, you know, and they’re not going to come to a show as much as a 27-year-old (laughs).
A lot of young fans are coming out, and I’ll be singing a song and look out and see a really young fan, maybe 18 or 21, singing along. So they’ve done their homework. They’re not just coming to see the old guys play. They know the songs; maybe they downloaded them on iTunes. I have no idea, but it’s interesting, and the number of younger people is growing.
In the 20 years I spent with Hot Tuna, I saw the audience change several times. We’re hoping that happens with the New Riders. We’re doing everything we can in the modern age. We just put up our new website, thenewriders.com; we’ve got myspace.com for the kids.
Nelson: It appeals to all different age groups and all different cultural groups because we have all kinds of music. We have honky-tonk music and original songs, and we’re taking stuff out in the jam world now.
I’ve seen many times some person in their 20s or early 30s, wearing a T-shirt that was made before he was born. And he says, “Yeah, I got this from my dad.”
It’s Gotta Be Fun, or Why Do It?’
Rex benefit concerts are the particular project of Peter Kliegman, who found a unique way to put his talents to good use. A few years ago Kliegman, a retired business executive who’d once been into the Dead but had fallen away from the scene, was brought to a Rex meet-and-greet by board member Steve Bernstein; there he met various Rex supporters and board members, including Executive Director Sandy Sohcot, and asked her if there was anything he could do to help.
“I had scrutinized the Rex Foundation and found that the methodology of why a particular charity is funded is a truly brilliant creative piece of thought, and that the band whose music I always appreciated had created this was impressive,” he recalls. “What a great mix of accidental opportunity, on a personal level, to combine my desire to contribute to a charitable effort, which, at this point in my life, I am able to do in a very tangible way (rather than just writing checks) – and to have it tied to music that I personally felt was so significant was an amazing moment in time.”
Last year when the idea for a Rex benefit in New York came up, Kliegman got the call. The Zen Tricksters benefit was a big hit, and he’s been part of Rex ever since. In addition to putting together individual events, Kliegman represents Rex at some of the festival circuit in the summer. “It’s very different from a specific show-event-fundraiser,” he says, “but very valuable in two ways: meeting the fans of the music and supporters of Rex, and, because of the nature of the structure of the festivals, plenty time to get to know, on a more personal level, a lot of the people, on and off the stage, that we work with.”
After the New Riders concert, Kliegman shared some thoughts on what drives his contributions – and those of the artists he enlists.
“My primary concern is working with bands and creating situations where we can raise money for the fulfillment of the mission of the foundation as laid out by the Grateful Dead at the inception, create connection with that community and have fun. It’s gotta be fun, or why do it? In my opinion, the Grateful Dead left two legacies, their music and philanthropy. Their music has been embraced by a new generation of musicians and festival goers, who also recognize and support the philanthropic mission of the Rex Foundation.
“The bands, and in this case NRPS, David and Buddy, inherently feel the same way. There is a connection to the feeling and the concept, and not specifically to a certain charity that is or was supported – it’s much bigger than that. It’s as much a family connection thing with both of them as it’s a connection to the work of Rex per se – as family, they already understand the mindset and support it.
“The Rex Foundation is a special thing because it’s a concept. It’s not just money – it’s a real concept that works and has worked, and it’s really complex. It’s about the music bringing everyone together and thereby raising the money that enables community-based charitable efforts to be funded – which helps the community and brings everyone together. I think Sandy Sohcot called it ‘transformational philanthropy’.
“I have a lot of fun doing these gigs; we have a good time and I try to make it a good time. It has to be fun for everybody. The musicians are amazingly philanthropic and give of their time like no one else; I try to facilitate an experience that’s as fun for them as it is for the fans coming to see a show. On a personal note, I truly value the friendships I have from these experiences. It’s very special and very real.”