New Riders of the Purple Sage

03/17/73 S.U.N.Y. Stonybrook

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By 1973 the New Riders of the Purple Sage had pretty much extricated themselves from the shadow of the Grateful Dead. They had formed about four years earlier as something of a country-rock spinoff of the more famous entity, their ranks including Dead members Jerry Garcia on pedal steel guitar, Mickey Hart on drums, and Phil Lesh on bass. By the time of this March 1973 gig on Long Island, those three had been replaced by, respectively, Buddy Cage, Spencer Dryden (ex-Jefferson Airplane), and Dave Torbert, the latter also one of the band's three vocalists. Filled out by primary vocalist, songwriter, and rhythm guitarist John "Marmaduke" Dawson and lead guitarist and vocalist David Nelson, NRPS, as they had come to be called, had become one of the prime movers in the country-rock movement. Less purist than the Flying Burrito Brothers and several others of the genre, NRPS nonetheless commanded a sizable following at their concerts and sold tons of records. They were in their prime as a performing unit by 1973, with a solid body of original compositions and covers to draw from (among them songs associated with Ricky Nelson, Humble Pie, and the Rolling Stones), and this set, presented here on two discs, is somewhat typical of the period. They were, in retrospect, an odd collective, particularly in the vocal department. Dawson's voice, though distinctive and alluring, was hardly a polished one, Nelson's was often flat (and his guitar playing plain weird), and Torbert, the group's resident pop/rocker, also wasn't particularly memorable as a singer. Yet they possessed enough enthusiasm and good ol' stoned energy to pull off a show that could approach thrilling, their harmonies were sweet, and they rocked hard enough. Dryden, in particular, brought a solid (if at times overexcited) thump to the band that nicely offset Nelson and Cage's twang, and NRPS, despite their shortcomings, had no trouble tapping into the Zeitgeist and connecting with their loyal, simpatico audience. The songs played at this show drew heavily from the band's first three albums (the majority of the tunes from the classic debut stuffed into the second set) and well-known covers, and they're played in the band's usual ramshackle but lovable manner. At their best -- uptempo country-based jams like "Henry," "Rainbow," "Truck Drivin' Man," "Teardrops in My Eyes," "Louisiana Lady," and their covers of the Stones' "Connection" and "Honky Tonk Women" (joined on the latter two by Ramblin' Jack Elliott) -- and in their sweetest ballads -- "Last Lonely Eagle," "All I Ever Wanted," "Long Black Veil" -- the New Riders were the consummate hippie cowboys, San Francisco division, and this set represents them at the peak of their development. Several months later they would release their most popular album, The Adventures of Panama Red, but in the next couple of years following it, NRPS would begin a long unraveling, never returning to the creative heights they enjoyed around the time of this East Coast gig.