New Riders of the Purple Sage, Station 2, Norfolk, VA- 12/10
Now that hair rock has killed L.A. for good (the signs were all there; Motley Crue’s reunion tour merely confirms it) and CMT has killed Nashville, there aren’t a whole lot of places left to go for the heart-on-sleeve new traditionalist California country that came out of the Golden State in the late 60s and early 70s. The Byrds were the popular pinnacle, Gram Parsons was the martyr, and The Eagles seem to have been the last gaspand I hate the fuckin’ Eagles, man. So for all intents and purposes, the jingle-jangle of California country died sometime around 1980, when Buddy Cage returned to record one last album with the New Riders of the Purple Sage. After “Feelin’ Alright,” John Dawson carried the torch through the 90s, but things were never quite the same once Poison broke up.
Ironically, it was newer blood that pumped David Nelson and Buddy Cage to reunite for a new New Riders tour this winter. Drummer Johnny Markowski and bassist Ronnie Penque apparently just hounded Nelson until he couldn’t say no, and with sometime Hot Tuna guitarist Michael Falzarano rounding out the line-up in place of the homebound Dawson, NRPS was ready to ride again. Call it a reunion tour. Call it a comeback. Just don’t call it a farewell tour. There’s no reason for the New Riders of the Purple Sage to rehang their saddles anytime soon.
While there’s still some rust around the edges, as de facto frontman Nelson was insistent upon pointing out, the New Riders are back in the saddle, and despite the age on their faces, they’re playing with all the chiming youth of their California birth. Cage’s pedal steel whistled and moaned through the apropos opener “Lonesome L.A. Cowboy,” and Penque, Nelson and Falzarano’s sweet harmonies resonated through “Rainbow.” Apparently having learned a few techno-tricks from his upstart bandmates, Nelson admitted to having had to Google the lyrics for the shuffling 50s blues rock of “Fifteen Days,” but the country rocker gave a lesson all these “new country” bands being spat off the Nashville assembly line should heed: there is a way to put a little rock into your country without losing the soul of either.
“Dirty Business” added a little grit to the sock-hop rock, and Cage sent sparks off into the few empty corners. Nelson added some honkytonk guitar before Cage returned like a lion then went out like a lamb, leaving wide-open spaces for his bandmates’ harmonies to fill. Part-time cohort Peter Rowan’s “Panama Red” rocked a little harder than expected, and “Louisiana Lady” sang along with the train’s whistle. While the entire show carried an undeniable nostalgia, the band’s youth gave it a life beyond old photos and artifacts buried deep in the closet. The bittersweet freedom of the Stone’s “Dead Flowers” brought the set to a sunnily cynical end, admitting the defeat of age, but refusing to accept the chains of maturity.
The Byrdsian harmonies and chiming chords of “I Don’t Know You” blew a cool ocean wind into the second set, as Cage played the “Last Lonely Eagle,” riding the gusts and gaps in the breezy melody before Falzarano ripped through the country rock of “Goin’ Down to Suttersville.” “Garden of Eden” blasted some psychedelia into the room as the band finally spread its wings on the skip-foot arena rock of “Groupie” and the raw, rusted Crazy Horse stomp of “Death and Destruction.” Much of the older crowd had called it a night after the first set, but those that were left joined in the singalong of “Rollin’ Down the Highway,” and the young’uns soon dropped their skeptical fae and joined right in.
The gap between the world that birthed the New Riders and the world in which they now ride again stretches over almost two generations, but the band’s galloping rock and soaring country bridges it, even if the two sides are still worlds apart. Station 2’s marble dance floor shook beneath the band’s closing honkytonk boogie and was only saved by the somber encore tribute of “Ripple.” While the hats-off to Garcia may not have been the evening’s finest moment, it goes a long way towards resolving the New Riders’ dual existence in the past and the future. The New Riders’ west coast country hasn’t aged quite as well as Garcia’s music, but their old lungs are breathing new life into a sound that by all accounts should live on beyond the vinyl collections gathering dust in America’s collective attic. So here’s to a few more rides and the hope that a new generation will take up the reins before it’s all over.