Still ridin after all these years
Thirty-nine years after he started New Riders of the Purple Sage with Jerry Garcia, Petalumas David Nelson is still leading the cosmic cowboy band
Published: Monday, November 24, 2008 at 3:20 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, November 24, 2008 at 4:55 p.m.
Longtime Petaluma resident David Nelson was a seminal figure in the San Francisco rock ’n’ roll scene of the 1960s and a co-founder of New Riders of the Purple Sage.
NEW RIDERS OF THE PURPLE SAGE
What: An evening with the psychedelic country-rock band New Riders of the Purple Sage.
When: Saturday, Nov. 29, 8 p.m.
Opening act: Moonalice.
Where: Mystic Theatre, 21 Petaluma Blvd. North.
Information: 765-2121 or www.mystictheatre.com
WHICH DAVID NELSON?
No one would confuse guitarist David Nelson of New Riders of the Purple Sage with David Nelson, son of Ozzie & Harriet and older brother of Rick Nelson. Or would they? This is from an entry about David Nelson the actor from www.answers.com: “There are various urban myths regarding the later career of David Nelson. Much of this confusion is obviously based on the name itself being incredibly common. ‘He joined the Grateful Dead,’ for example, is a classic combination of myth and wish fulfillment, the square ’50s nerd freaking out and turning into a hippie lead guitar player. Unfortunately, this is a different David Nelson.”
Nelson will bring the psychedelic country-rock band to the Mystic Theatre in Petaluma this Saturday, Nov. 29, for their annual holiday season concert.
The 65-year-old guitarist, who seems to spend most of his time touring either with the New Riders or with his own David Nelson Band, talked about the early years of the New Riders, its current makeup and repertoire and its mystique.
“The whole New Riders thing has an appeal to different generations,” he said. “There’s something about it that appeals to people of all ages.”
Its roots go back to 1962, three years before the Grateful Dead would be formed, when Nelson and his pal Jerry Garcia started playing together as a duo and a year later formed a bluegrass group called the Wildwood Boys, with Garcia on banjo, Nelson on guitar and future Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter.
It was the beginning of a longtime friendship and on-again-off-again musical collaboration between Garcia and Nelson, with Nelson playing on three Grateful Dead albums and in Garcia’s acoustic band.
Nelson said his early collaboration with Garcia came about because “we were always interested in traditional forms of American music like bluegrass, country blues and jug band music.”
In 1969, the two founded the New Riders of the Purple Sage, a name presumably inspired by Zane Grey’s western novel, “Riders of the Purple Sage.” It was a side project for Garcia to practice a new instrument he was learning: pedal steel guitar. With Nelson on lead guitar, Garcia on pedal steel and John “Marmaduke” Dawson as songwriter, guitarist and vocalist, the New Riders forged a new sound that appealed to country music lovers, rock ’n’ rollers and hippies alike.
The band’s pioneering use of a pedal steel guitar came at the same time other rock artists like Gram Parsons, the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers were starting to do the same thing, creating a sound with sweet country harmonies mixed with pulsing rock rhythms.
The band’s makeup has gone through many changes over the years, with Buddy Cage replacing Garcia on pedal steel guitar, for example. But Nelson and Dawson remained core members of the group, which often opened for the Grateful Dead in the 1970s.
Thirty-nine years after the original NRPS started out playing in San Francisco coffeehouses and clubs, Nelson and Cage are playing with a new incarnation of the band.
Nelson, a Petaluma resident since 1983, says the band’s concerts have been well received and he’s having a good time playing with Cage again after several years.
“We’ve been playing all of the original songs and adding some our newer ones and covers that we really like to do,” Nelson said. “John Dawson’s original songs were really great.”
Dawson left the band in 1998 and moved to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, to nurse his health. He stays in touch with Nelson and has given his blessing to the latest incarnation of the band.
Besides Nelson on guitar and Cage on pedal steel, the current NRPS lineup features Michael Falzarano (Hot Tuna) on guitar, mandolin, and vocals; Johnny Markowski (Stir Fried/JGB) on drums and vocals; and Ronnie Penque (Neon Gods/JGB/ Ripple) on bass and vocals.
This version of the band has been together since October of 2005 and has played more than 100 shows. “We’ve been playing up and down the East Coast,” Nelson said. “We just recently played in New York City at a benefit for the Rex Foundation. That was a fantastic show — Kenny Kosek and guitarist Jeff Mattson from the Zen Tricksters played with us.”
Their songbook will likely include their best-known song, Peter Rowan’s “Panama Red,” along with other NRPS staples like “Glendale Train,” “Henry” and Buck Owens’ “Truck Driving Man.”
“We’ll be playing about 40 years of stuff,” Nelson said.
Since its first eponymously titled first album in 1971, “New Riders of the Purple Sage,” the band has released 11 more albums, including “Powerglide,” “Gypsy Cowboy” and “The Adventures of Panama Red.” For more about the band, visit its Web sites, www.thenewriders.com or www.nrps.net.
The New Riders of the Purple Sage will play on Saturday, Nov. 29 at the Mystic Theatre, 21 Petaluma Blvd. North. Moonalice opens the show. Doors open at 7 and the show starts at 8 p.m. Tickets are $25. Phone 765-2121 or visit www.mystictheatre.com.
(Contact Chris Samson at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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