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Published: 2004/09/30
by Joshua Sabatini

Hopping The Express Train With David Nelson

Below an early August clear sky, Dave Nelson is strolling down California Street, cable car dutifully rattling by on rails, in stride with long-time musician bud Tom Stern, after the two parked their car at a Nob Hill garage in San Francisco to meet for an interview at 1319 Zeki's, a neighborhood bar.

Nelson is wearing a tan, heavy, long-sleeved workman’s shirt with "Alamo" stitched over the left breast pocket, beat up jeans and cowboy boots. He drags on an American Spirit; eyes hidden behind sunglasses, head covered by grayish and brownish thinning curly hair and chin and jowls speckled with patches of tuft.

These days, Nelson regularly tours with the David Nelson Band, a forceful quintet employing admirable music technique, drawing all ages.

We’re at a table by the front window, sun streaming through, fresh breeze pouring through open door. Drinks are ordered.

Nelson’s sharp, quick-witted, animated freely imitates music notes or personages amiable and a voluminous source of anecdotes about glorious days: Beatniks, Neal Cassidy, acid tests, bluegrass; and yes, good friend, the late Jerry Garcia.

This spring the David Nelson Band celebrated its 10th year, certainly defying the odds, always doing it their own way. The band evolved out of Grateful Yours (later turned into Dead Ringers), a tribute band to the Grateful Dead. Nelson was asked to be a part of it since he worked on the Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty albums. It was the tribute band that hooked Nelson up with Barry Sless, now lead guitar and pedal steel player with the David Nelson Band. The two were destined to team up: "I found the more we played we started branching out playing other stuff," says Nelson. "I noticed that it was easy to jam with Barry, real inviting and a feeling of ease to express yourself. So I got real excited about that."

When the tribute band dissolved, Nelson wished to keep the magic going. "We thought this was too good to stop doing, but we couldn’t keep being a tribute band," Nelson recalls. "So somebody said, We got tunes. Why don’t we just get our own band?’" And then quintessential Nelson humor punctuates the history lesson: "Like Cheez-Its. Get your own box.’" That’s how the David Nelson Band formed.

The band seems to continually fight for its survival. Three band members live in Baltimore and two in California, which makes the overhead high. It takes a series of gigs already setup to get them out on the road. And the band does it all on their own, that’s: "no booking agency, no manager, no nothing." It’s that freewheelin’ spirit.

The reward of the labor was not instantaneous. Nelson recalls the early touring years with the David Nelson Band: "It was looking out into the audience of like four people" or worse.

Picture rolling into town for a gig in Alabama, where football is a religion. Nelson and the band arrive and there’s no one around. "We drove into the town and went, What’s wrong? What’s happening? Has there been a national emergency?’"

They find out the score: Band got booked on a night when the college football team was playing an important away game in Georgia. Ordinarily the place, about the size of an airplane hanger, was the hangout spot.

"The only people in the audience were the two custodians that were left to watch the place," says Nelson. "I have a tape of it. It’s still one of my favorite tapes cause we are playing great and you hear after every song (Nelson imitating one person clapping) and I’m talking like there’s a big audience. Why thank you.’ Talking a little too loud. It was so poignant."

Times change. Over the 10 years, music fans caught on, realizing this old timer can still jam and take them on an exciting journey through the night. "Our fan base is so wonderful. Go to our website and read the bulletin board. There’s these wild people, really imaginative. And there’s regulars and at gigs they are of all ages that’s a remarkable thing."

Fans are important to this longtime musician. "One of the things that has kept me going under hard times is that at almost every gig somebody in their 20s, whose never heard me before, makes it a point to come up and say something that they liked about it. That really means a lot," Nelson says.

Don’t expect a studio album from this band. "We have to do it differently now," he says. "We cannot afford to produce a record in the studio. We record our live stuff raw and we make a good recording of it digitally and then print that up as fast as we can. It’s warts and all, as raw as could be."

Nelson continues showing up in San Francisco; his recent appearances include playing the Spencer Dryden Benefit, attending the San Francisco premiere and after party of documentary film Festival Express and visiting, out of reverence to Garcia, the Fillmore Auditorium for a private screening of the Closing of the Winterland.

Nelson was joined on stage with Bob Weir at the May 22 Spencer Dryden Benefit in San Francisco. "No sound check, no rehearsal, no nothing. I wasn’t even fully expecting [Weir] to show up for us," says Nelson. "And he does. He comes up, plugs in and we started a song and his first note was like crash. Real quick, he shut it down, lowered and was right in there. E-mails on the bulletin board compared it to a sonic boom’ or an earthquake that rattled the equipment.’"

On stage, Weir and Nelson, at the forefront playing side by side, spoke and gestured to one another during two key moments while playing the "The Wheel." What was that all about?

"Trying to get the arrangement together," Nelson explains. "[The David Nelson Band] has the original arrangement not from the record, but from one of [Grateful Dead’s] first runs doing "The Wheel." We thought that was the best and the easiest to remember. We ran into that little snag when we played with Phil and Friends cause Phil does this new arrangement and we do the old one. So we had to work that out, and so I was trying to tell Bobby that, and he stepped right into that easy, and then later in the song, when it got to the end, he was telling me an idea of: Lets’ do this.’ And that was spontaneous too: The vocal chorus sings behind him, then he repeats the line over and over again.

"That was arranging on the fly," Nelson says enthusiastically.

Stern offers to refill the empty glasses; there’s hip-hop on the jukebox for a bevy of slender blonde- and raven-haired drunken English gals, which raises the topic of pop music.

"There’s not much there, not much substance," says Nelson. At one point, he says, he might have gotten angry, but "now I can say, I don’t care. Let them do what they want, let them live man. OK, I can it dig too." He says his overall dislike of the popular music is certainly "not because it’s too weird, that’s for sure."

A new set of drinks draws out Nelson’s current musical project, which suddenly enlivens him. "Wait to you hear what’s on these two CDs I have here," he says, fingering the two burned CDs in jewel cases with typed up labels. "This is going to have some weird stuff."

Here’s the skinny on the music. None of it has a live musician. It’s all synthesizer stuff using a sequencer and Master Tracks Pro.

"I can’t play keyboard. I did it one note at a time: every tick, every drum lick, every high hat," says Nelson, "which means I had to go back and edit to make it feel right. It totally has gotten into my mind."

Nelson edits two or three minute songs for feel: adjusting such things as velocity, making notes louder or softer or changing their duration. Sometimes he simply lets the computer randomize the notes.

This leads to a conversation about time and music and feel. "When something really takes off and has a drive to it, it’s got a slant," Nelson explains. "In other words, the even noted times in the middle 1, 2, 3, 4’ or 1 and…’ are usually retarded a little bit, usually a little late. But they are not as late as a triplet, which is how you would write it in music. So there is that vagueness that can’t be written in music, which is the feel of it."

Suddenly, Nelson moves his mouth closer to the tape recorder and, in his best imitation, says, "This is Richard Nixon, my memoirs, 1995."

He continues on about his synthesizer project: "It’s like animation, sculpture." "Those are my weird trips," he calls them. He says he has "eight brand new original tunes, at least eight."

"I have a box of tapes, one from 2001 when I stopped more or less compositions," he says. "I’m going home and I am going to work on those from 2001. If I can get some words, I am going to have like I dare say eight tunes, eight brand new original Dave Nelson tunes. At least eight of them on there I think are worthy to be full blown songs they’ve got an original twist that you’ve never heard." Nelson spends upwards to 12 hours a day on this sort of composition work.

Nelson attended the Festival Express film premiere on July 12 in San Francisco. The New Riders of the Purple Sage were on the train, but the band was about three weeks old at the time. "That was 1970, and we started in the late summer of ’69," says Nelson. "We weren’t New Riders yet. We were the Murdering Punks, the Car Thieves, any name we could think of. We hadn’t even thought of the New Riders. And it was just me and John, and the rest of the band was Bob Matthews, Phil, Jerry and Mickey."

In the beginning, Sam Cutler was doing the road managing. Aboard the train ride through Canada, Nelson met guitarist Buddy Cage for the first time, which would eventually lead to Cage’s involvement with the New Riders.

He tells a story from the Canadian trip: "Cutler loved to do this to us New Riders to me especially. Get us real stoned until you get into that shy space like: Oh my, I don’t know.’ You know that space. He’ll make sure we were in solidly into that space. And he says, New Riders, we are going to the gig. OK hop in.’ And he’d take us to the front gate and walk us through the crowd. This way, come on Nelson.’ And he’d walk ahead of us and I know he’s probably saying, New Riders. That’s them.’ And I remember being like, Oh God, do we have to? And I suppose he’s going to make us step up on the ladder and get on stage in front of everybody.’

"He seemed to take perverse delight in doing this, many times he did this. Anyway this was yet another time. So I am walking through the outdoor stadium and heard this ripping steel guitar, this guy was just jamming. He was just out there. He was just breaking for it. Just breakin’ fast. As I get closer, I pull Cutler’s coattail to ask him who he was and he says, I’ll find out for you Nelson.’ And I found out easy that was Buddy Cage. We got on the train and I paid attention to him a lot." When Garcia started to get overworked, Nelson says, Cage came on board with the New Riders.

His reaction to the film was one of joy. "I was so delighted that they got real cool shots of Pigpen in his prime, doing "Easy Wind" and "Hard to Handle," and the best shots of Garcia ever, just his person, just playing, you know, and sound-wise the guitar tone on "New, Speedway Boogie," which is right after that big fracas with the audience coming up saying, (Nelson’s imitation of an irate fan) This should be free. This is bullshit.’ [Garcia] tried to tell them, If you could just be quiet, we are going to try and setup a free concert for you.’

"They went ahead and did the free concert anyway, but he got shouted off the stage for that. So it was time to do "New Speedway Boogie," wasn’t it? He’s got that just searing, kind of burning, kind of tone. Comes along once in a while. Once in a while you can get that when you got the emotions to deliver it (Nelson imitates Garcia’s notes). Man it’s great. I love that."

The conversation shifts to about Garcia solely, as we were speaking between the days of the anniversary of his birth and the anniversary of his death.

"Yeah, that’s going way, way, way back," says an emotional Nelson. "The peninsula: it was 1962 or ’61 and, Ah! the peninsula was experiencing this big, blooming of culture of people that were way into folk music and traditional stuff and there was this thing for bluegrass."

In high school, Nelson met Rodney Albin and his younger brother Peter Albin, who became bassist for Big Brother and the Holding Company.

Here’s a picture of Rodney: "Rodney set up this thing at Boar’s Head. He got permission from a guy at a bookstore to use the upstairs balcony on summer nights, Tuesdays and Thursdays, and setup a little microphone you know, one of those RCA hand grenade mics and a Bogen amplifier. Rodney had it altogether man. He was cool."

It’s back to the story: "Rodney takes me one night and says we are going to find more musicians. I was still way at the learning stages, but I was pickin’ a little bit. He takes me and Pete one night, and says we are going down to Kepler’s bookstore in Palo Alto. There’s this guy, Jerry Garcia.’

"Well, Garcia was a total Beatnik at that time, an orphan, vagrant, ne’er-do-well. How do you describe it? And kind of legendary, cause the name rang a bell when I heard it: I think I heard of that name.’ So he’s telling me in the car about Jerry all the way down.

"The moment I do remember crystal clear is going into the bookstore and going in and there’s the area there shelves, shelves, shelves (Nelson’s hands move through the air, constructing the inside of the bookstore over the tabletop before my eyes) and then there’s the area over there, where the tables are. Rodney and I walked forward single file, you know, and I saw this guy playing the guitar and I cut into the next bookcase, just to not have to be there right now, you know.

"So we were peeking through the books like this (Nelson makes like he’s peeking through a keyhole) into the area where the tables were and I see this dark-haired guy, really hairy, really hairy, with an open shirt, it was summer, something in his hair, like a little tiny wreathe, like some girl had taken some leaves and said, Here,’ (imitating young flower girl handing over the gift) with this real, what do you call that look on his face? playing a K-12 string guitar. But he looked right at you, with this look like, not sour, but ah, sultry, but anyway, I’m looking for a certain word."

Nelson sat down and played "Cuckoo Bird" with Garcia and then Nelson played a riff he had made up. "I remember Garcia wigged on the riff (imitates riff). " That’s very pretty,’" Nelson says, imitating Garcia from those many years ago.

"I don’t even know if I’ve even made it to the point of reckoning that he’s really gone," says Nelson. "It’s such a thing to me and we were close friends at the level we were on. It feels like we were both struggling, making six bucks a gig, trying to learn to play this shit. That’s what it was. Driving home at night from the gig, Give me a ride.’ Oh thanks,’ and just talking about shit. It was always talk about Maybe we can get this’ and The place to find that is…’ because the search for the music was not easy. It was not easy."

It’s clear that even early on Garcia was a helmsman of the age: "The thing that was remarkable, just standing in a group at that time, ’62 or ’63, you’d see all us people, partying or backstage or something like that, and there was this old guy, and it’s Garcia. He just always looked more advanced. Somehow he had a head start. And I come to find out he’s less than a year older than I am."

Nelson has a deep respect for Garcia’s work ethic as well as his daring spirit: "Garcia was just like a charger into it, to try stuff. I mean how about the audacity to try the five-string banjo with no teacher. You have to put a lot of effort into it and study tirelessly and keep trying and keep trying and keep trying. Garcia was the kind who would just jump in there and try it and try it even if there’s a million mistakes It’s getting better,’" Nelson says, again with an imitation of Garcia.

Then Nelson talks about the Garcia who always had with him the guitar. "He would always play incessantly," says Nelson. "It would be annoying man. In the backseat in the car driving up to San Francisco, not even to a gig, he would play the same lick over and over again (imitates a scale) and he’d he give you this blank stare while he was doing it.

"And if it was in a backroom somewhere, he would walk up to you and do that. And you’d be, Hey I’m trying to talk here.’ You’d be talking to someone, and he would be giving you a blank stare."

Nelson, as most figures in that scene, was deeply influenced by the now famous acid tests, and talk about those experiences rises naturally during the conversation. He says: "In those days, you have to picture it: Before the opening up of everything underground coming up above ground, before the blooming up of everything, there was this need to be straight and maintain a straight appearance and maintain your cool, which basically breaks down to: explain yourself. You felt pressure to explain yourself in some kind of way," says Nelson.

"So the idea of the acid test is to strip everything down of any explanation whatsoever no way to explain it. Then, when you get to the bottom of that, rip that away too. And what you find is that when you get to complete nothing,’ something arises immediately."

"In other words: order comes out of chaos spontaneously. It does, it simply does. We learned something from that. The act of stripping yourself totally of any kind of explanation: What’s behind that? what’s behind that? what’s behind that? You find layers and layers and layers of stuff and you’ll find the stuff of you that wants to survive and it says, Please don’t tear this one down’ Cause we were young and we were never going to die, we would say, You die too’ You come to nothing, and you find, lo and behold, guess what? boom, something!"

"And that’s kind of like playing music. You get to the bottom of the thing before there’s the idea of a structure of that tune that is what the band is trying to delve into and find the root of it and what it relates to. If everybody is brave enough to go to the nothing point’ something will come of that that is all of it. That’s kind of what happened with the [Grateful Dead] at the acid tests."

With the sun now striking us three directly in the face, he concludes: "But that’s just a little corner of it. It’s so huge, way huge. My view of the universe is BIG."

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