Concert Review: The New Riders of the Purple Sage
Albany, NY, 5/20/06
By Glenn Weiser, Metroland, June 1, 2006

Ripple Effect
The New Riders of the Purple Sage

The Egg, May 20

Jerry Garcia may not have cared much about politics, but Buddy Cage, who took over the pedal-steel chair in the New Riders of the Purple Sage from Captain Trips in 1971, was clearly exercised over the Republican Party’s policies when the country-rock band took the stage at a sold-out Swyer Theater at the Egg last Saturday night. After grousing about Bush and the GOP, he gruffly informed the largely graying, baby-boomer crowd, “We’re gonna change things in November.” 

It was the first of a few goofy yet refreshingly serious outbursts on the subject by Cage that punctuated the two-step grooves, smooth vocal harmonies, and honky-tonk riffs from his pedal steel and founding member David Nelson’s B-bender Telecaster that characterized the evening. Even though he and Nelson were the only longtime members left, the New Riders had no trouble conjuring up the laid-back sound that made them famous in the 1970s. Panama Red was back in town, and he was an activist to boot.

The New Riders of the Purple Sage (the original Riders were a famous 1940s Western band named after a Zane Grey novel) began as a Grateful Dead spinoff in 1969 when Garcia paired his newfound love, the pedal steel guitar, with guitarist John Dawson’s lead singing and songwriting. The Dead’s drummer Mickey Hart and bassist Phil Lesh, and Jefferson Airplane drummer Spencer Dryden were in the early lineups, and both Dryden and Garcia graced the 1971 debut record. By the time Cage joined, the New Riders were an independent group who went on to release nine more LPs over the next eight years as their popularity grew, well, like a weed.

These days, Dawson reportedly is retired from the music business and living in Mexico. Currently performing with Nelson and Cage are rhythm guitarist and Hot Tuna alumnus Michael Falzarano, and bassist Ronnie Penque and drummer Johnny Markowski, formerly of the jam band Stir Fried. Even though Dawson was a Jerry Garcia vocal clone, none of the current New Riders sang as well, although Penque, another Garcia soundalike, came closest. Nelson’s lead guitar work tended to be rudimentary, reminding one of John Fogerty’s countrified soloing with Credence Clearwater Revival, and the fact that Nelson and Falzarano often played identical open guitar chords during the vocals gave the rhythm section a simplistic texture that was saved from monotony only by Cage’s glistening pedal steel licks.

The band opened with a rarity, country bluesman Mississippi John Hurt’s “Sliding Delta,” with Nelson fingerpicking Hurt’s original acoustic guitar part. From there they went to the first of several well-chosen covers, the Rolling Stones “Dead Flowers,” in which Cage used a distortion effect to make his pedal steel sound like electric slide guitar playing. In the course of two long sets they doled out all the New Riders classics: the dope smuggler ballad “Henry,” “Lonesome L.A. Cowboy,” with its refrain “Snortin’ coke, smoking dope, tryin’ to write a song”; their biggest hit, “Panama Red,” Peter Rowan’s 1973 tune about a rogue who is the personification of dope, and others. They closed with R. B. Greaves’ “Take a Letter, Maria,” and encored with a sweet, twangified version of the Grateful Dead’s “Ripple.”

My Stetson’s off to the New Riders of the Purple Sage for playing as well as they did, and to Buddy Cage for reminding us that this old world’s in a hell of a fix.

Index of Metroland Articles by Glenn Weiser    ©2006 by Glenn Weiser. All rights reserved.  


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