The New Riders band rides again

By John Benson

Formed exactly 40 years ago, New Riders of the Purple Sage began as a Jerry Garcia side project with the guitarist exploring his pedal- steel talents performing Bakersfield country.

Eventually, Buddy Cage (Ian & Sylvia and Great Speckled Bird) would replace the Grateful Dead visionary, forming the group’s core lineup, which scored a radio hit in 1973 with “Panama Red.”

Even though the group was conceived under the umbrella of the Grateful Dead, a band it opened for numerous times in its career, New Riders of the Purple Sage severed its ties over the years and became its own country-rock entity.

“The New Riders have always been the New Riders,” said Cage, calling from outside of Chicago. “I don’t put it up against anything, the Grateful Dead or any of the so-called jam bands. We never started out to be anything but New Riders with what we had, the way we played it and the way we went at it. We never had the gall to call us a jam band. Now Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, that’s jam. I didn’t have any idea of calling it that.”

While the New Riders of the Purple Sage continued on through the ’90s, eventually the act split up. Cage said the possibility of re-forming was never remote; however, there was never a significant offer from promoters to reunite. That is, until five years ago when Cage rejoined original guitarist David Nelson and newcomers guitarist Michael Falzarano, bassist Ronnie Penque and drummer Johnny Markowski to create the renaissance of the New Riders of the Purple Sage.

After touring for a few years, the act released 2009 studio effort “Where I Come From,” which found the band in great sound for what amounted to a history lesson in Bay Area music.

“I think the old fans liked what they heard, but the added part was probably people who were just really intrigued about what we were playing and saw us as the last link between us and The Dead,” Cage said. “The new material that [Dead lyricist] Robert Hunter sent us via e-mail and Nelson put to music was stunning. Hunter likes the stuff better than what he was writing back in the ’70s. It’s really incredible.”

Cage hinted a new album of Hunter-Nelson material will see the light of day in 2011. In the meantime, the outfit is returning to the road with a winter tour that includes a show tonight at the Kent Stage.

What does Cage think Garcia would say about the newest version of New Riders of the Purple Sage?

“I think he’d probably be amazed at what we’ve been able to play together over the years, because back in early ’70, he really wanted to do this gig but for so many reasons, he couldn’t,” Cage said. “He was really happy when he got a hold of me and told me to break away from the other stuff and come and be a New Rider. I don’t think we would have ever disappointed him in any way.”