The Grateful Dead. The Jefferson Airplane. Janis Joplin. Quicksilver Messenger Service.
All these names are synonymous with the San Francisco music scene of the late '60s. Yet, there's another band that also made an indelible impression, and, at the same time, helped bridge the divide between rock and country in ways that resonate even today. New Riders of the Purple Sage, or NRPS for short, influenced countless Americana bands and those that are a part of the roots rock brigade.
It was an outgrowth of an early friendship forged by budding guitarist David Nelson and Jerry Garcia, soon to become a lynchpin with those high priests of hallucinogens, the Grateful Dead. With a like-minded guitarist John "Marmaduke" Dawson along for the ride, the trio began performing country standards and traditional favorites around their native San Francisco.
While Garcia would go on to fame, and presumably fortune, with the Dead, Nelson and Dawson went on to pursue their own musical ambitions. Nelson contributed to the Dead's epic Aoxomoxa and played a transitional role with Janis Joplin's former band Big Brother. Dawson tried his hand as a folksinger and, after an inspirational experience with mescaline, began writing the songs that would become a part of the early NRPS canon.
Later, with bassist Dave Tolbert in tow, and Garcia contributing his budding skills on pedal steel and fellow Dead members Mickey Hart and occasionally Phil Leah offering their contributions on occasion, the band's initial incarnation began to take shape. Its eponymous debut album, released in 1971, encapsulated their signature sound, a combination of stoner rock, lilting country melodies, and occasional hints of bluegrass.
Nevertheless, it was their role as the Dead's perennial opening band that ensured the devotion of Deadheads everywhere. The group would eventually evolve into an independent entity with the addition of ex-Jefferson Airplane drummer Spencer Dryden replacing Mickey Hart who went on sabbatical, and veteran steel guitarist Buddy Cage after Garcia dropped out to focus on the Dead. It was this incarnation of NRPS that achieved notoriety throughout the '70s, scoring its signature standard with a version of Peter Rowan's "Panama Red" in 1973.
The band soldiered on with diminishing returns into the early '80s, before eventually disbanding in 1997. Nelson and Cage reconvened in 2005 (Dawson, Tolbert and Dryden have all passed away), adding former Hot Tuna guitarist Michael Falzarano, bassist Ronnie Penque, and drummer Johnny Markowski to augment the new line-up. The first fruits of this union appeared in 2009 with the album Where I Come From, followed last year by 17 Pine Avenue.
New Times recently caught up with Falzarano midway between gigs in Key West and Coconut Creek, and asked him to catch us up with the band's tangled trajectory.
New Times: For starters, tell what sort of reception you guys are getting these days, and who is coming out to the shows? Fans from back in the day, newcomers, former Deadheads?
Michael Falzarano: We're out on the road with this configuration now for close to ten years playing between 80 and 100 shows a year. Everywhere we go, young and old seem to love it. The old fans keep coming back and the new younger fans are right there with them.
After the deaths of some of the band's key players, how did you regroup? Was it a difficult decision to carry on?
The band hadn't played in any configuration for about ten years, so we just decided to put a few shows together just to have some fun. All the shows sold out we had a blast doing it so we decided to carry on, and it's worked out great.
Do you feel like you're carrying on a certain legacy? Or are you forging a new one? Is it a nod to the past or an eye towards the future or both?
Yes, we try our best to stay true to the history and legacy while forging ahead on new ground. It's seems to us that is working just fine. We've released two studio CDs of new material, Where I Come From and 17 Pine Avenue. We released a DVD/CD called Live at Turkey Trot of the old songs from back in the day and we released an EP called Radio Mixes and live tracks of both new and old stuff. Next year we'll be heading back into the studio to record a new studio album.
How do today's audiences differ from those back in the day?
Hard to say, they seem the same in many ways but different. Different faces but they're just as enthusiastic.
In the beginning, part of the band's identity had to do with the fact that they were steady touring partners to the Grateful Dead. Does the Dead connection still linger? Are any of you personally in touch with surviving members of the Dead?
Yes, Robert Hunter, Grateful Dead lyricist, wrote seven songs along with NRPS David Nelson for both studio CDs and David has also played with Phil Lesh and Friends a few times along the way.
Americana has become such a popular term these days, and yet NRPS was really one of the first pioneers of the country rock fusion. Do you feel the band has gotten its due for that?
No, not as much as it should have. But in time that might change.
What can audiences expect from the current NRPS shows?
A good rockin' night of music filled with both new and old songs.
The New Riders of the Purple Sage (NRPS), will perform 9 p.m., at Seminole Casino Coconut Creek's Nectar Lounge, 5550 NW 40 St., on Friday, November 1. Admission is free. For more information, call 954-977-6700, or visit online at seminolecasinococonutcreek.com.
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