David Nelson with NRPS this past fall – photo by Suzy Perler
Though they keep up a tour itinerary that would fray most bands, perhaps it was the loss of two very different friends that led to the New Riders Of The Purple Sage’s unusual intensity Friday night. Sixties acid manufacturing kingpin, Augustus Owsley (Bear), the man who kept the pranksters merry, died in a car crash in Australia and Delta pianist Pinetop Perkins was struck down after only ninety-seven years. And a psychedelicized take on country blues was how the Riders started out (then, really new) back in 1969.
Of course we have the Grateful Dead to thank for the Riders template. Jerry Garcia wanted to hone his skills on his new pedal steel and over the years the Riders opened many a Dead show. David Nelson is the only remaining member of that original lineup, but Buddy Cage has been on board since he was coaxed out of Anne Murray’s band in 1971 (though I can’t quite picture that).
The proceedings began with another band’s take on country, The Rolling Stones’ “Dead Flowers” from 1971, a song that’s been in the Riders set almost as long. The Fairfield Theater only holds a couple hundred and the intimacy gave “Louisiana Lady” an unavoidable groove that held sway for the evening’s duration. Throughout both wonderfully eccentric sets the band dipped into their reserves – airing out favorites like “Last Lonely Eagle” and “I Don’t Know You.”
It’s not your Eagles brand of country rock, but David Nelson’s shopworn voice suited Robert Hunter’s “Higher” nicely and on “Blues Barrel” and “Big Six” gimlet-eyed Buddy Cage was astonishing on pedal steel and dreadlocks. Cage makes it look effortless, as though a four-year-old could wander up to his axe and make it sing as he does.
The hoedown ended with an ever-raucous “Panama Red,” and if this is what aging hippiedom looks like, then we should all look foward to the experience.