Best known for the album Adventures of Panama Red and the eponymous hit single, which chronicles the exploits of a marijuana smuggler, the New Riders of the Purple Sage eased their way onto the 1970s music scene as a side project for a handful of members of the Grateful Dead. Their easy-going fusion of San Francisco psychedelia and classic country twang appealed to the mellow ’70s audience.
The group was originally comprised of such famous names as Jerry Garcia, Mickey Hart, and Phil Lesh, along with founding members John Dawson and John Nelson. When they began to emerge onto the scene as more than simply a side project, the members of the Dead found themselves overcommitted. Dawson and Nelson replaced Lesh with bassist Dave Torbert; Hart with former Jefferson Airplane drummer Spenser Dryden; and Garcia with Buddy Cage on pedal steel, forming the band’s first steady lineup.
In 1971, the band signed with Columbia Records. Torbert left the band in ’74 to form Kingfish and was replaced by former Byrds bassist Skip Battin.
Since the band officially dissolved in the early ’80s, Dryden, Torbert, and Battin have passed away and Dawson has battled chronic health problems, making it impossible for him to tour.
About a year ago, Cage and Nelson began talking about playing together again. While they won’t use the term reunion (“For this to be a reunion, you’d have to exhume dead bodies,” Cage says.), they have embarked on what they are calling a New Riders of the Purple Sage renaissance (“Everybody here is creating,” Cage explains), touring with a new lineup and reinventing old music.
They’ve recently solidified the lineup with former Hot Tuna sideman Michael Falzarano on guitar and mandolin, drummer Johnny Markowski, and bassist Ronnie Penque.
“Me and Nelson had to get spiritually cool with it,” Cage says of reviving the band’s retired music. “We weren’t sure if it would work, but within five days we were laughing. When we got playing, it really cooked. The new guys were really into it. They brought much more to the lineup than we asked of them.”
The latest version of New Riders of the Purple Sage boast a show that includes “everything you expect to hear and a hell of a lot more.” While the new lineup retains the original NRPS psychedelic country-rock, they’ve also experimented a bit with a more loose, jam-based sound, not dissimilar from Nelson’s own Dave Nelson Band.
“These songs have proved to be virtually timeless,” Cage says. “But you can’t sit around and play the same old songs when there are other tunes begging for entrance. It’s really groovy stuff. We don’t have to develop a groove — we have been the groove since 1969.”