David Nelson has managed the seemingly impossible. He has remained true to his musical vision and integrity without becoming outdated or archaic in the process.
Nelson was an important figure in the musical vanguard of the influential Haight-Ashbury music scene that spawned the Grateful Dead. But his ties to Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter extend beyond that with The Wildwood Boys, a bluegrass band they formed together in 1962 in Palo Alto, Calif. After the Dead got together, Nelson played guitar on three pivotal albums, Aoxomoxoa, Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty. Around the same time, Garcia bought a pedal steel guitar, which he enjoyed playing with John Dawson, a friend from the Palo Alto days. They formed New Riders of the Purple Sage with Nelson and the Dead’s Mickey Hart and Phil Lesh.
The New Riders took their name from the country outfit Foy Willing and the Riders of the Purple Sage, who in turn took it from the classic Western novel. The band often would open for the Dead, but when New Riders became a full-time recording project, Garcia, Lesh and Hart respectively were replaced by Buddy Cage, who now plays in Stir Fried; Dave Torbert, who went on to form Kingfish with Bob Weir and Matthew Kelly before passing away in 1983; and ex-Jefferson Airplane member Spencer Dryden.
Nelson, who sang one of New Rider’s biggest hits, a cover of bluegrass great Peter Rowan’s “Panama Red,” stayed with the group for 13 years, but left in 1982 and starting writing songs with longtime pal Robert Hunter, among others. Along the way, he was a member of the Good Ol’ Boys, featuring bluegrass legends Don Reno, Chubby Wise and Frank Wakefield. He also played in the Jerry Garcia Acoustic Band and is featured on their 1988 album, “Almost Acoustic.”
Then in 1994, Nelson decided to do something with the songs he had been piling up. He formed the David Nelson Band with guitarist-pedal steel player Barry Sless (Kingfish, Cowboy Jazz), keyboardist Mookie Siegel (Kingfish, Ratdog), latter-day New Riders bassist Bill Laymon, who also played in Jefferson Starship, Kingfish, JGB and Big Brother & the Holding Company, latter-day New Riders/Kingfish drummer Arthur Steinhorn, who also played in Cowboy Jazz, and drummer Charlie Crane (Cowboy Jazz and The Uptown Rhythm Kings). In six years, DNB has released four CDs. Three are live efforts: 1995’s “Limited Edition,” 1997’s “Keeper of the Key,” and 1999’s “High Adventure in Japan,” which also is a concert video. Last year also saw the release of the band’s studio debut, “Visions Under the Moon,” which was recorded in Portland, Ore.‘s Aladdin Theater with Aaron Hurwitz, a long-time associate of the post-Robbie Robertson version of The Band.
Nelson talked with me about his very collaborative band, his love of Appalachian, Bob Dylan and Peter Rowan music and his long-lasting friendship with Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter.
What is ‘High Adventure’?
Anything you want it to be. It can be inside your head. It can be actually stumbling around on a mountain top. Whatever you want to interpret that to be. We kept getting asked what kind of music do you play, and we were just goofing about that. It was just sort of a silly answer at one point, ‘Well, we play High Adventure’ because you see movies advertised as high adventure and stuff like that.
What do you like most about ‘Visions Under the Moon’ and how is it different from ‘Keeper of the Key?’
It’s quite different from ‘Keeper of the Key.’ ‘Keeper of the Key’ is a recording of a live performance, and ‘Visions Under the Moon’ was conducted like a recording session. The full mixing board was out in the lobby of a theater, and we had all the instruments miked just like you do in a studio. We even had sound walls to get separation.
How did you come up with all that in a theater rather than a studio?
Well, the idea was to not be in a studio to get the feeling of a concert. We had an audience. In the evening, we’d invite the audience to watch us record, but we still conducted it like a recording session and not a show. We just kept to the songs that we were trying to record, and we did them over again if we didn’t get a good take. If we made a mistake, we’d have to start it over.
How was it an improvement over the typical recording studio?
Well, it had its drawbacks too. The best was that you hopefully get a livelier take, better than a studio take. The downside is that it’s a very inefficient way of doing things. It’s costly on all angles. There’s always the chance that what if you don’t get the good take. And we couldn’t see the producer. That was one of the big things.
Because he was out in the lobby.
Yeah, and we’d have to talk to him back and forth. There wasn’t as much listening as there was in the studio. I like to listen to the take to see where you’re going and what it sounds like so you have a better idea of where to go.
Do you think you’ll do that again?
I don’t know. We’ll probably figure something different for the next album.
Maybe bring the audience into the studio.
Yeah. Right. That would be good.
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