|An ad for the 1974 NRPS album Brujo celebrates the band's popularity in NYC|
The New Riders Of The Purple Sage, February 2, 1974
Columbia Records had signed The New Riders of The Purple Sage in 1970 on the strength of John Dawson's songs and their association with Jerry Garcia. Although Columbia label chief Clive Davis was unable to snag Garcia for his label until several years later (with Arista), his skills as a "record man" were legendary, and the New Riders were proof of that. I don't think that the Riders got a huge advance, but in the early 70s they sold a heck of a lot of albums. They weren't necessarily candidates for gold records, but a record company could make money on an album long before the artists did, so Columbia made plenty on the New Riders.
By the release of the New Riders fourth album, The Adventures Of Panama Red, in mid-1973, the New Riders seemed extraordinarily well placed in the record industry. The Grateful Dead, with whom the Riders would always be associated with, were more popular than ever. More importantly, "Country Rock" and "Outlaw Country" (essentially Country Music for longhairs) were growing in popularity. Artists like The Eagles, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson seemed to point towards a convergence of music styles, and the New Riders seemed hip enough for the outlaws while melodic enough for the radio. They also played great live shows, with lengthy and varied sets in the style of the Dead. With three singers and two writers, and a great soloist in pedal steel guitarist Buddy Cage, the Riders seemed primed to break out of the middle levels and hit the big time.
The only fly in this ointment was the unexpected departure of bassist/vocalist David Torbert at the end of 1973. John Dawson had written a huge batch of songs prior to the first album, and they had made up the bulk of his contributions for the first three albums (NRPS, Powerglide and Gypsy Cowboy), so Dawson was initially the de facto lead singer. However, by mid-73 Dawson was contributing fewer songs to the band. Although Torbert seems to have been initially recruited as just a bassist and harmony singer, it turned out that he was an excellent singer and writer, and a nice contrast to Dawson. When Dawson and Torbert's contrasting styles were mixed with the sound of David Nelson singing old and new honky tonk music, the New Riders seemed to cover the whole spectrum of country rock. Torbert's handsome, laconic surfer look was an appealing counterpoint to Dawson's Cosmic Cowboy persona.
Thus when Torbert left the rising New Riders at the end of 1973 for unstated "opportunities," it cast a quizzical note on what had so far been a steady rise on the band's fortunes. As a replacement, the New Riders signed up veteran bassist and singer Skip Battin. Battin (1934-2003) a few years older than the rest of the band, who had once had some AM hits with the duo "Skip And Flip" (along with Gary Paxton), when other members of the New Riders were just finishing High School. After various other endeavors, Battin had ended up becoming the bassist for The Byrds from 1969 through 1972.
Although the New Riders were headlining mid-size halls throughout the country, and had just headlined Winterland the prior December (Torbert's last show had been at Winterland on December 15, 1973), the band seemed to want to break in Battin with some safe club gigs. According to the NRPS site, Battin's first show would have been January 29, 1974 at the Lion's Share in San Anselmo, a famous Marin musician's hangout. This show was followed by shows on February 1 and 2 at the Keystone Berkeley. The Friday and Saturday night shows were probably lightly advertised but sound packed to the gills.
The Second Set
Keystone Berkeley, Berkeley, CA February 2, 1974
A pretty good audience tape endures of the New Riders' Saturday night show at the Keystone, thanks to the great taper Jerry Moore. According to the tape notes, Garcia joins the band for the entire second set, but I don't hear him until mid-set. I also have to add that the audience is pretty prominent between songs, and I don't hear the usual shouts of "Jerry!" and "Casey Jones" for the first few numbers. I also wonder how he got on the stage without being noticed, since the Keystone had no 'backstage' as such, and performers simply had to walk through the audience. It's a striking image in my mind to think of dancing, stoned New Riders fans grooving between the tables on the Keystone floor, while Garcia casually maneuvers between them on his way to the stage.
Garcia may join the New Riders for the instrumental "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy," a Joe Zawinul tune made famous by Cannonball Adderley, the fifth song of the set. He's definitely on board for "Truck Drivin' Man," "Glendale Train," "You Should Have Seen Me Running," "Crooked Judge," "LA Lady" and "Take A Letter Maria." Jerry lays back on some tunes, but he lets it fly on "Truck Driving Man," "Crooked Judge" and "Take A Letter Maria." It's particularly interesting to hear Garcia go at it on "Crooked Judge," the only known instance where he performed this Hunter song (amusingly, Nelson introduces the song by saying "the old crank himself wrote this," probably as much for Garcia's benefit as anyone else).
While some of the numbers may seem surprising for Garcia to have joined in on, I only recently realized that Garcia would have just finished mixing Home, Home On The Road, and would have been completely familiar with the band's entire repertoire. While I find it unlikely that Garcia actually rehearsed with the Riders, if he knew the material he would have no problem fitting in, and that's plain when you hear him rip through "Crooked Judge" with Nelson and Cage at full speed. I have always insisted that the sound of the pedal steel guitar, rather than the notes themselves, was one of the principal attractions to Garcia. When you hear him rock through New Riders material on (no doubt) his Doug Irwin Tiger, there's no doubt that Garcia could have played six string on all the New Riders songs and the music would have been just as distinctive.
|The cover of the 1974 NRPS album Home, Home On The Road|
The New Riders were slowly climbing in popularity, but had not yet consolidated their following outside of the East and West Coasts. In the 1970s, one standard record company practice for a band with a couple of good albums under their belt was to record a sort of "Greatest Hits Live" album, with a few covers or unreleased songs thrown in for the hard core fans. The most famous example of this strategy was A&M's release of Peter Frampton's Frampton Comes Alive, recorded in 1975, but the practice had been around for years. In fact, Live/Dead would have been a signpost for many record executives of how a band could make an exciting live album to allow FM radio to "catch up" to a group.
Whether Columbia and the New Riders had made the decision to release Home, Home On The Road before Torbert gave notice isn't clear, but certainly once he left a live album allowed the band to tread water while they worked in their new bass player. When the album came out, Jerry Garcia's presence as the producer didn't seem too surprising, but following the Spring 74 release of the album the New Riders started to spin out of each other's orbit somewhat, so in that respect Garcia's production work and final live guest appearance with the band on February 2 were a sort of swan song to Garcia's close relationship to the band, even if that wasn't entirely seen at the time.
Producing a live album is less of a time commitment than producing a studio album. The producer's job would generally be to listen to all the material, select the best tracks and mix them down. In some cases, producers would also overdub additional instruments or vocals onto "live" albums--the Grateful Dead did that a few times--but I doubt that Garcia did that with the New Riders. As far as I know, Columbia professionally recorded two New Riders shows at the Academy of Music in New York City on November 23 and 24, 1973, and those were the shows that Garcia would have chosen the album from.
Producers were usually paid fairly well for their work, and my guess is that the Riders wanted a friendly comrade, but only Garcia had the clout to actually get a paycheck from Clive Davis. Put another way, Bob Matthews and Betty Cantor might have done the job just as well, but a New York label would not have trusted them as much as a big rock star. Keep in mind that in late 1973, the Grateful Dead were complete free agents, having turned down Warners and Columbia to start their own record company. It was a sign of Clive Davis long running courtship of Garcia that Garcia was hired to produce the Riders live album. As a footnote, remember also that producers usually get royalties for their work, so potentially at least if the album had been a big hit, Garcia would have had a continual stream of income.
New Riders Management
Home, Home On The Road represented a high water mark for the New Riders. A live album after a hugely successful studio album, particularly if produced by a famous friend, would have been intended as a place holder for the band's next big splash. However, the following album, Brujo, was kind of a letdown, and the last Columbia album, 1975's Oh, What A Mighty Time, seems like contractual filler, as the band was leaving Columbia after seven albums in five years. The New Riders signed a no doubt lucrative contract with MCA Records. Frank Zappa, it should be noted, always referred to MCA as "The Music Cemetery Of America" and the label's attempt to make the New Riders more Nashville-like was never successful. The band had a variety of ups and downs for several years, but they finally ground to a halt around 1982.
One factor that seems to have gotten lost in the New Riders history was that somewhere around 1973 or '74 the group changed management. The credits for Panama Red, recorded and released in mid-1973, list Jon McIntire (Uncle John himself) as the band's manager. By 1975, however, I know that the Riders were managed by one Joe Kerr, who also managed Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen. I'm not sure when the transition occurred, but I think it was late '73/early '74. The Garcia produced live album appears to also be the last Riders album that was part of the Grateful Dead managed universe, whether or not they had fully made the switch to Joe Kerr.
Kerr was a college friend of George "Cody" Frayne, and Frayne regretfully says now that Kerr stole most of the Cody band's money. I have to think that the New Riders did not escape unscathed. Although I don't know why Torbert left when he did--I have never found his minimal explanations convincing--when someone quits a rising band, money is never far from the hierarchy of motives. Either Torbert was not happy with the NRPS partnership, whatever it was, or he had some doubts about the recent or impending participation of Joe Kerr, Torbert's departure presaged the long decline of the band.
Fortunately, however, David Nelson and Buddy Cage, with a little help from Robert Hunter, have revived the New Riders for the 21st century, honoring the band's past while upgrading them for the present. The band began touring again in 2005, just thirty-one years after Garcia got on stage with them at the Keystone Berkeley one night in 1974, ready to jam because he knew all the songs.
New Riders Of The Purple Sage with Jerry Garcia
Keystone Berkeley, Berkeley, CA
February 2, 1974
Second Set (57 minutes)
01 - Hi Hello How Are You
02 - Dim Lights, Thick Smoke
03 - Parson Brown
04 - Linda
05 - Mercy Mercy Mercy
06 - Truck Drivin' Man*
07 - Glendale Train *
08 - You Should've Seen My Runnin' *
09 - Crooked Judge *
10 - L.A. Lady *
11 - Take A Letter Maria *
12 - On The Amazon
The New Riders of The Purple Sage
Buddy Cage-pedal steel guitar
David Nelson-lead guitar-vocals
John Dawson-guitar, vocals
Skip Battin-bass, vocals'
*Jerry Garcia-lead guitar (tracks 6-11)
unknown-piano (track 12)
notes: it's not impossible that Garcia plays on "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy" and "On The Amazon." The last number, a Skip Battin song, is rather hurried and Dawson quickly announces that they've run out of time and have to shut down, so it may not have been planned as the last song.