New Riders of the Purple Sage at Jorma Kaukonen’s Fur Peace Ranch, Pomeroy, Ohio - March 28, 2015
New Riders of the Purple Sage were about 40 minutes into a barn-burning Saturday night set at Fur Peace Ranch when Jorma Kaukonen sauntered on stage and poured musical gasoline on the fire.
The New Riders had been killing with its incendiary blend of country-infused acid rock, when frontman David Nelson recalled going to a club with Jerry Garcia and being blown away by a finger-picking guitarist named Jorma from the Jefferson Airplane.
With that, Kaukonen emerged and what was already a hot night of music turned downright sweltering as the musicians turned in a smoldering version of Chuck Berry’s “You Never Can Tell” that led to the first of many standing ovations of the evening.
The band, with Kaukonen in tow, proceeded to tear its way through Bob Dylan’s “Lo and Behold,” the traditional “Deep Elm Blues” and Leadbelly’s “Take this Hammer.” The air in the tiny Fur Peace Station crackled with energy as Nelson, Kaukonen and steel guitarist Buddy Cage traded searing solos that merged country, rock and blues and sent the audience into a frenzy.
New Riders were a late addition to the Fur Peace schedule after guitarist Dan Hicks was diagnosed with cancer and cancelled his show.
NRPS rhythm guitarist Michael Falzarano said the New Riders had been enjoying some hard-earned down time when his former Hot Tuna bandmate Kaukonen called and asked the band to fill in. They quickly reconvened and flew to Ohio for the one-off.
Despite the circumstances, the band sounded as though they were in the midst of a mid-tour peak.
For two hours, 20 minutes, they turned in their unique blend of American music. New Riders began as a Grateful Dead spinoff in 1969 and enjoyed a long run at the forefront of the country-rock movement. The current incarnation - principal members Nelson and Cage, plus Falzarano, bassist Ronnie Penque and drummer Johnny Markowski - has been together since 2005 and has evolved into a well-oiled, hard-touring music machine.
Nelson, who handles the majority of the vocals, sings like Dylan did in the ‘70s and plays on the first five frets of his guitar, giving him a deep, twangy tone. His solos intertwine with Cage’s intricate pedal steel work to create a musical mix that is unique to NRPS and at times, it’s difficult to discern which sounds come from which guitarist.
With four vocalists - everyone but Cage sings at least a couple of tunes - and strong harmonies, the Riders never sound stale. Their long set list looked back to their earliest recordings (”Last Lonely Eagle” from their 1971 self-titled debut) to their latest (the Markowski-sung, four-part harmony of “Down for the Ride” from 2012′s 17 Pine Avenue).
Set two began with the band’s best-known tune, the pean to pot, “Panama Red.” Over the next 70 minutes, the quintet played a lilting rendition of “Peggy-O,” on which Cage really shone with cascading runs; paid tribute to tour rats with the hilarious, Penque-sung “Wookie Kids;” closed the festivities with the Rolling Stones’ “Dead Flowers;” and encored with Grateful Dead’s “Ripple.” Kaukonen appeared for a good chunk of the set and with his intricate finger picking, again launched the band from the high troposphere to the upper stratosphere.
Grade card: New Riders of the Purple Sage at Fur Peace Ranch - A
New Riders of the Purple Sage guitarist and vocalist David Nelson missed two shows and will sit out the last three concerts of the band’s current tour after injuring himself in a fall, the band said on its Facebook page.
“Unfortunately David Nelson fell after our last show and fractured his shoulder … and had to fly home for surgery,” read the Saturday morning post.
“He suggested we soldier on and try to make the next few gigs to fill our contracted obligations. We’re taking it one show at a time. NRPS and Friends for the next few shows. Hope to see you there. We wish David a speedy recovery.”
On Saturday and Sunday, guitarist Rob Wolfson (Dead Sage) and keyboardist Benny Harrison (Elvis Costello) filled in for the injured, 73-year-old Nelson.
The band has concerts scheduled tonight in New Jersey, Thursday in Maine, Friday in New Hampshire and Saturday in Massachusetts. There’s no word on the website - thenewriders.com - about who NRPS’ friends will be at these performances.
After completing this run, NRPS are slated to resume performing Oct. 22 in Santa Cruz, Calif., according to the band’s website.
New Riders of the Purple Sage at Woodlands Tavern, Columbus, Ohio, Sept. 25, 2014
Looking like an absent-minded professor and donning a tie-dyed head band, New Riders of the Purple Sage singer/guitarist David Nelson sauntered on stage Thursday night with a coffee cup in one hand and a three-ring binder full of lyrics in the other. NRPS’ other principal member, pedal steel guitarist extraordinaire Buddy Cage, glasses perched on his head and sporting a black mohawk, was already sitting at his instrument, ready to get started.
The night would go on for nearly three hours over two sets of music and touch on every aspect of NRPS’ long history, dating back to their origins as a Grateful Dead spinoff. Cage’s rig was emblazoned with the Dead’s lightning bolt logo; Dead stickers adorned the band’s equipment; and Dead Set entertained the crowd between sets. Cage, who spent the evening looking uninterested as he grimaced and looked askance at individual audience members through squinted eyes, nonetheless proved himself to be NRPS’s secret ingredient as his focused, intricate playing belied his onstage demeanor.
In addition to Nelson and Cage, the current New Riders feature former Hot Tuna guitarist/singer Michael Falzarano, whose onstage jocularity provided the perfect counterweight to Cage, and the rhythm section of bassist/singer Ronnie Penque and drummer Johnny Markowski. Despite some issues with Penque’s vocals, the sound system was so clear that listeners could home in on Falzarano’s essential rhythm work or Cage’s steel offerings without losing the entirely of the band’s sonic output.
The setlist found NRPS dipping into its own extensive catalog from the early (“Panama Red”), to the late (2012’s “Suite at the Mission”); and paying homage to its influences including the Rolling Stones (“Dead Flowers”), Johnny Otis (“Willie and the Hand Jive’) and Bob Dylan (“Absolutely Sweet Marie”) among others.
Nelson’s twangy, scorching country-rock leads and Dylanesque vocals are the main focus; however, what Cage coaxes from his pedal steel, which includes everything from focused leads to cascading cries to otherworldly noises to the sounds of harmonica and keyboards, give the band its deep, full flavor. Falzarano and Penque had plenty of chances to shine on lead vocals and the three singers produced a nice blend on harmonies. More than 40 years into their journey, the New Riders of the Purple Sage showed themselves to be a muscular, vital band that really should be playing to thousands in theaters rather than to 150 in a bar.