There is some conventional wisdom about the early history of the New Riders bass player, much of it demonstrably wrong. The amusing part about this conventional wisdom has been that the conventional wisdom has been promulgated by various band members, mainly Jerry Garcia, John Dawson and David Nelson, so everyone has assumed that it was correct when in fact it was, at best, considerably more fluid. Another key point that I continually emphasize is that there is very little reliable evidence of any sort about the 1969 New Riders.
I know of no photos or newspaper reviews of the 1969 New Riders, and there are only three tapes, one a studio demo. What few, vague recollections there are of the 1969 Riders usually stem from the times they opened for the Grateful Dead. The only person I have been in contact with who actually saw the New Riders in a nightclub was then a waitress at the club, and while she knew who Jerry Garcia was she had no clue about the band or the music. Our actual knowledge about the New Riders in 1969 is based on a sort of "Creation Myth" promulgated by the band's trio of founders, and the actual reality seems somewhat different.
After some research into other areas, I feel that I have a plausible hypothesis for the roles of Bob Matthews and Phil Lesh in the early New Riders of The Purple Sage. In making my case for this hypothesis, I can illustrate some of the interesting cross-currents and demands of a busy band in a period of expansion, and how many competing interests came into play. I remain stumped on the question of Robert Hunter's exact role, but I feel that will be illuminated in due time. Here then is my current thinking on the membership of the New Riders up until April 1970. I have appended a list of New Riders show from the appropriate period at the bottom of the post.
The Conventional Story
Many times, the story has been told that John Dawson was visiting a Grateful Dead rehearsal in Novato and heard that Jerry Garcia had bought himself a new pedal steel guitar in Boulder, CO. Garcia invited Dawson over to his house to hear it, and Dawson brought his guitar along and played his own songs so that Garcia would have something to play along with. Garcia liked the songs, and invited himself to back Dawson at his Wednesday night gig in Menlo Park at a hofbrau called The Underground. David Nelson joined them, and the trio decided to make a band of it.
Over and over the story was repeated that the boys figured out that if they used Mickey Hart and Phil Lesh, the Grateful Dead could tour with their own opening act and only have to bring two extra people (Nelson and Dawson) on the road. This would equal an extra $500 or $1000 per night, in theory, and would be well worth it, and thus the New Riders were born. At some point in early 1970, or so the story goes, Phil Lesh lost interest and was replaced by Dave Torbert. Hart left the band at the end of 1970, and Garcia departed in late 1971, and the New Riders spread their wings. The story has a nice, clean narrative with a simple arc, which is why it got repeated so often. However, it's only true in a very narrow sense.
The Actual Story
Once Garcia, Dawson and Nelson decided to make a band out of their little enterprise, there were a few shows in June 1969 with indeterminate lineups, probably including Jerry's old friend Peter Grant on banjo. McNally called this a "tryout" of the New Riders concept. Per Blair Jackson, the first actual show was opening for the Grateful Dead at a Hell's Angels party at Longshoreman's Hall on July 16, 1969. This was followed by an August 1 show at the Bear's Lair Coffee House in UC Berkeley. The Hell's Angels show featured no billing whatsoever, and the UC Berkeley date was advertised as "Jerry Garcia and Marmaduke,"and one listing added "and friends." The first appearance of the New Riders of The Purple Sage name was a four night stand at the Matrix on August 6-9, 1969.
The New Riders of The Purple Sage played a fair number of shows in 1969, almost all in the Bay Area, and mostly on weeknights. However, the Riders only opened for the Grateful Dead on three occasions: their debut at Longshoreman's (July 16), one weekend in the Pacific Northwest (August 20-23) and a weekend at the Family Dog (August 28-30). The idea that the Dead went out with the New Riders as their opening act in 1969 is a fiction, save for one weekend in Washington and Oregon. That weekend itself is so confusing, it's possible that the New Riders only played one show. There was a goof off night in a bar (August 20) when the initial show was rained out, and any history of the Oregon rock festival on a Saturday is lost, and I can only say with confidence that the New Riders played the middle night in Seattle (August 21).
Leave aside for a moment that the theme that Phil Lesh allowed the New Riders to be an opening act has little basis in reality. In the last several years, persistent scholarship has brought to light that the original New Riders bass player seems to have been legendary Grateful Dead engineer Bob Matthews. Dawson had alluded in the past to rehearsing with both Robert Hunter and Bob Matthews, but it had never been clear that Matthews played any gigs. Matthews, apparently, said that he had, and this was ultimately confirmed by David Nelson and others. Nelson has at least generally confirmed the idea that Lesh and Matthews shared bass duties at some point, depending on the gig.
Bob Matthews was a childhood friend of Bob Weir's, and as a result he was hanging out with the Grateful Dead from their earliest days. Matthews is best known as one half of "Bob and Betty," the engineering team that recorded Aoxomoxoa, Live/Dead, Workingman's Dead and numerous other live and studio efforts well into the early 1980s. He was an original member of the equipment crew, he helped build the sound system at The Carousel and he was an original member of the Alembic engineering team as well.
A close look at McNally, however, reveals that Bob Matthews was fired from the Grateful Dead's equipment crew in December, 1967 due to conflict with Mickey Hart (p.233). Now, fired or not, Matthews continued to work with the Grateful Dead for the next 15 years, so the conflict must not have been irreparable. However, from 1968 onwards Bob Matthews seems to have been an engineer and not a crew member. Thus if the Grateful Dead were going to take the New Riders on the road, taking Bob Matthews along meant taking an extra person. From that perspective, if Phil Lesh had little interest in playing with the Riders, then another body had to be added in any case. For many years I had assumed Matthews was part of the crew, but in fact he was not. When Matthews was along on the road, it would have been because the band was recording, and Matthews would have been too busy to play bass.
Matthews' presence as the Riders initial bass player makes sense in another way as well. We have discovered that there were more New Riders shows in the second half of 1969 than we had originally thought. However, Phil Lesh has never had a history of regularly playing Bay Area rock nightclubs on weeknights. I now think he never played those shows. If the New Riders played The Inn Of The Beginning, or the Poppycock, or some such place, Matthews more likely played the date. If the New Riders were opening for the Grateful Dead, Lesh played it. As to events in between, such as the weeknight "Hoedown" shows at the Family Dog, the truth is we have no evidence either way who played bass, but my guess is that Matthews and Lesh more or less split those duties.
Bob Matthews was employed by Alembic Studios in 1969, and would have been doing periodic contract work for the Grateful Dead. However, that would have left him free to play clubs on a weeknight. Since by and large Matthews had stopped going on the road, going out to the Poppycock or some such place would have been fun. Lesh, by contrast, has always been up for heavy touring, but he was rarely a guy who dropped in to play at nightclubs when he was off the road.
1969 New Riders Tapes
There are three 1969 New Riders tapes
- August 7, 1969: The Matrix, San Francisco
- September 18, 1969: The Inn Of The Beginning, Cotati
- November 1969, Pacific High Recorders studio, San Francisco (4-song demo)
However, The recording at The Inn Of The Beginning is considerably more mysterious. I have no idea why a New Riders tape from the Inn Of The Beginning was recorded or preserved, while no other live '69 New Riders has endured, save the Matrix. Who was taping the New Riders, even once? My own personal suspicion was that Owsley made the tape. I can't imagine that the 1969 Riders had a formal crew arrangement--although once again, no one knows--so if Owsley was present, he probably just invited himself to mix the sound, and taped it as a matter of course. One of my fond hopes has always been that Owsley taped a few New Riders shows from the earliest days, and kept them hidden in a box.
In the past, I have been told by people with better ears than mine that they were sure Phil Lesh played bass on the two existing New Riders live tapes. I have no reason to doubt them. I am interested in making a rather opposite point, however, which is that the tapes survived because of their superiority, and with Phil Lesh playing bass the New Riders were a better band. For example, Phil Lesh may not have played all four nights when the New Riders played the Matrix, indeed he may have only played one. However, since the Matrix owners typically only kept the best tape, it doesn't surprise me that they would have kept the one with Phil Lesh on bass. By the same token, whatever the peculiar circumstances that led to the Inn Of The Beginning tape being recorded and then preserved, if it is indeed Phil on bass, then either that was planned from the beginning (for example, if Owsley knew Phil was playing) or the reason the specific tape was preserved.
In 1986, Relix Records released a retrospective New Riders of The Purple Sage album called Before Time Began. Among other things, it included a four-song New Riders demo recorded by Bob Matthews at Pacific High Recorders in November 1969. With Matthews working the board, it was no surprise that Phil Lesh played bass. I believe that this demo shows the true interests and talents of the band's various bass players--Phil Lesh was the better bass player, and Bob Matthews had the golden ears of an engineer. For a demo that was supposed to be played on the radio (and it was) and shopped to record companies, the New Riders needed their best-hitting lineup. Phil Lesh probably did not play many New Riders gigs, far fewer than we may have thought, but paradoxically it does seem that his performances are more likely to have been preserved.
After November 1969, there are only four New Riders showed booked between then and the end of March 1970. At least three and possibly all four of them were never played. What happened? The first and most important factor is the recording of Workingman's Dead. Although the band themselves did not spend an excessive amount of time in the studio, producers Bob Matthews and Betty Cantor would have had substantial duties listening, mixing and editing, so Matthews would be considerably less free to drive around the Bay Area playing fun gigs with the New Riders. More importantly, since Matthews was not a paid member of the band's crew, but rather a contractor, he would have been directly or indirectly giving up paid work for the Dead in return for beer money with the New Riders.
Matthews's obligations in Winter 1970 would have left New Riders bass duties to Phil Lesh. It is here where the oft-repeated story that Phil was "just not interested" starts to fit in. There has been no time in his career when Phil eagerly sought out nightclub gigs around the Bay Area, much less in the midst of a busy schedule of touring and recording with the Grateful Dead. To the extent Phil Lesh ever played nightclubs in this period, it seems to have exclusively been at the Matrix. When Matthews was playing the club gigs in late '69, Phil seems to have been willing to play bass for a few New Riders shows, particularly if they were opening for the Dead. Don't forget, an opening set would have likely been considerably shorter than a couple of sets in a nightclub. But Lesh wasn't the guy who wanted to drive over to Cotati to play country rock all night on a tiny stage.
Phil Lesh had such a unique path to becoming a bass player that I have no doubt he musically benefited from playing simple songs with the New Riders. I'm sure his playing on Grateful Dead songs like "Black Peter" or "Friend Of The Devil" were much more surefooted for having played that sort of music with the New Riders. But Phil was still Phil--after a rehearsal or two and several concerts, Phil would have incorporated all the musical education he could have gotten from the New Riders music, and it would have just been an exercise from then on. I think Phil Lesh turned down any New Riders gigs in early 1970, and Garcia, Dawson and Nelson realized they needed a permanent bass player. At some points in the 1969 and early 1970 period, Robert Hunter had been rehearsing with the New Riders as the bassist, but all parties concede that he never actually played a gig with the band. The time frame of Hunter's participation with the New Riders remains interesting to me, if confusing, but it is more of a subject of intra-band collaboration rather than the New Riders touring history.
In April 1970 the New Riders signed up Dave Torbert, catching him "coincidentally" when he was returning from a surfing trip to Hawaii. Torbert had been in the New Delhi River Band with Nelson, and was friends with Dawson as well, so I doubt it was a "coincidence" that he got the call. Indeed, it would seem logical to think that after Matthews became occupied with recording, Nelson and Dawson planned all along to have Torbert take over bass duties, and were only waiting for him to return from Hawaii. The New Riders played a flurry of local shows in April 1970 in anticipation of the introduction of "An Evening With The Grateful Dead, featuring the New Riders of The Purple Sage, " which debuted on May 1, 1970 in Alfred, NY.
Matthews, never really that great a bass player anyway, was too important as a recording engineer, so he would never have been a candidate as a permanent member of the New Riders. Lesh had passed on the job, and in any case no one probably ever thought Lesh would take the job permanently. Although it took the arrival of Torbert to bring the New Riders on the road, extra money for just three bodies (instead of two) was still a sound business practice. Eventually, of course, Mickey Hart and then Jerry Garcia would leave the New Riders, but the first step had been finding a real bass player to stand in for two part-timers.
Appendix: New Riders Performances, 1969
May 7, 1969 The Underground, Menlo Park John Dawson
May 14, 1969 The Underground, Menlo Park John Dawson
May 21, 1969 The Underground, Menlo Park John Dawson
June 4, 1969 The Underground, Menlo Park John Dawson
June ?, 1969 Peninsula School, Menlo Park [billing unknown]
June 11, 1969 California Hall, San Francisco Bobby Ace And The Cards Off The Bottom Of The Deck
June 24, 1969 The Underground, Menlo Park John Dawson
July 16, 1969 Longshoreman's Hall, San Francisco Grateful Dead/Cleveland Wrecking Company/Ice [Dawson, Garcia, etc unbilled]
August 1, 1969 Bear's Lair, UC Berkeley Jerry Garcia, Marmaduke and Friends
August 6-9, 1969 The Matrix, San Francisco New Riders Of The Purple Sage
August ?, 1969 Lions Share, San Anselmo, New Riders Of The Purple Sage
August 13, 1969 Family Dog On The Great Highway, San Francisco New Lost City Ramblers/New Riders of The Purple Sage "Hoe Down"
August 19, 1969 Family Dog At The Great Highway New Riders Of The Purple Sage
August 20, 1969 El Roach Tavern, Ballard, WA Grateful Dead/others (possibly NRPS)
August 21, 1969 Aqua Theatre, Seattle, WA Grateful Dead/New Riders of The Purple Sage/Sanpaku
August 23, 1969 Bullfrog 2 Festival, Pelletier Farm, St Helens, OR Grateful Dead/others (possibly NRPS)
August 28, 1969 Family Dog At The Great Highway Grateful Dead/Mickey And The Hartbeats/NRPS
August 29-30, 1969 Family Dog At The Great Highway Grateful Dead/Commander Cody/New Riders Of The Purple Sage/Rubber Duck Company
September 18, 1969 Inn Of The Beginning, Cotati New Riders Of The Purple Sage
Fall 1969, Peninsula School New Riders Of The Purple Sage
Steve Marcus attended this show, and recalls Phil Lesh on bass. This was different than the June event.
October 9, 1969 Inn Of The Beginning, Cotati, CA New Riders Of The Purple Sage
October 14-16, 1969 Mandrake's, Berkeley New Riders of The Purple Sage
October 17, 1969 Loma Prieta Room, Student Union, San Jose State College, San Jose New Riders Of The Purple Sage/The Fourth Way
October 22, 1969 Family Dog On The Great Highway, San Francisco New Riders Of The Purple Sage/Lazarus
November ?, 1969 Pacific High Recorders demo New Riders Of The Purple Sage
(4 tracks released on the 1986 Relix lp Before Time Began; engineered by Bob Matthews)
November 3-4, 1969 The Matrix, San Francisco New Riders Of The Purple Sage
November 6, 1969 Inn Of The Beginning, Cotati New Riders Of The Purple Sage
November 13, 1969 The Poppycock, Palo Alto New Riders Of The Purple Sage
November 18, 1969 Family Dog On The Great Highway, San Francisco New Riders Of The Purple Sage/David LaFlamme "Square Dance"
November 19, 1969 Fillmore West, San Francisco New Riders Of The Purple Sage/Big Brother and The Holding Company/Barry McGuire & The Doctor Naut Family
November 20, 1969 The Poppycock, Palo Alto New Riders Of The Purple Sage
November 22-23, 1969 Family Dog On The Great Highway, San Francisco New Riders Of The Purple Sage/Anonymous Artists Of America/Devil's Kitchen
November 27, 1969 Family Dog on The Great Highway New Riders Of The Purple Sage/Lamb/Cleveland Wrecking Company/Deacon and The Suprelles/Rafael Garrett Circus
November 28, 1969 Inn Of The Beginning, Cotati New Riders Of The Purple Sage
January 19, 1970 Pauley Ballroom, UC Berkeley, CA: New Riders Of The Purple Sage/Cleanliness and Godliness Skiffle Band Benefit For Center For Educational Change
March 12, 1970 Inn Of The Beginning, Cotati New Riders of The Purple Sage (canceled)
March 13-14, 1970 New Orleans House, Berkeley New Riders of The Purple Sage (canceled, replaced by Big Brother)