Monday, June 14, 2010

March 12, 1970 Inn Of The Beginning, Cotati, CA New Riders of The Purple Sage

[For all my clever theorizing in this post, I have now rejected it. For the reasons I think the March 12, 13 and 14 New Riders shows were never played, see my post here. I am leaving this post intact in the interests of Historiography, and anyway the Comment thread is great]

JGMF had an interesting query about the lack of activity of The New Riders of The Purple Sage between November 28-29, 1969 and early 1970. I am going to recap some of my comments there, with the added information that I seem to have found the earliest New Riders show for 1970. The clip above, from Ralph Gleason's Chronicle column on March 11, 1970, mentions the New Riders of The Purple Sage playing the Inn Of The Beginning in Cotati on Wednesday, March 12, 1970. The Inn Of The Beginning was the site of the previous known New Riders show, on either November 28 or 29 (I'm inclined to believe they only played Friday the 28th, not both nights).

We used to think that the New Riders only played occasionally from Summer 1969 until April 1970. We have now discovered, however, that the New Riders were working pretty steadily from August through November of 1969. Why did the New Riders stop playing for some months, and then return as regular performers by April? The short answer is that I think its about finding a replacement for Phil Lesh. I think Phil agreed to play bass for a while, and then lost interest or reached the limits of his commitment (eg he told Jerry he would do it for six months, or something like that). The steady 5-month run is why I think the band was actually called to a halt, temporarily, and since Phil Lesh was the only member who didn't continue, his replacement seems like the biggest issue.

All the stories about finding a bass player for the New Riders make considerably more sense if you think about them as taking place in Winter 1970 instead of Summer 69. I think Phil agreed to get the show on the road--an unrehearsed Phil is better than most bassists, period--but it wasn't his thing. Have you ever heard a word of nostalgia or regret from Phil for passing off the Riders? Subsequent history has shown that Phil was never a guy who liked to play bars, nor did he have any interest in playing simple bass parts--even when Leshidelically embellished--for much longer than a benefit concert.

The whole saga about Hunter writing "Friend Of The Devil" with Dawson took place in Winter 1970. Hunter even said somewhere that he rehearsed with them but never played a gig, and he suspected Nelson was planning to get Torbert in anyway. The whole Hunter-as-bassist scenario fits into a time period when Garcia and the Riders were working on new material in anticipation of performing, but had no bookings at the time. Thus the New Riders of The Purple Sage existed, but only in the Greater Kentfield Metropolitan Area.

Here's my ratiocinatio about the New Riders circa Winter 1970:
  • Garcia, Nelson and Dawson took their concept out in the clubs in late 1969, to see if it was viable. Mickey Hart and Phil Lesh came along for the ride, essentially as a favor to Jerry and for general fun.
  • In early 1970, Garcia decided he was serious about the Riders concept. Lesh played out his option--he was never a nightclub guy anyway. Hart stuck around. That meant they had to find a real bass player. Do you think Garcia and Nelson didn't talk about it?
  • The Riders started writing and rehearsing new songs. Hunter was their ghost bass player. Garcia and Nelson must have strung him along in some ways, without quite lying to him. Hunter is an adequate bass player, but I suspect Nelson had a bit more of a bluesy feel in mind.
  • Dave Torbert and David Nelson had played together for two years in the blues-oriented New Delhi River Band, but the band broke up in early 1968. Torbert went on to play in some groups that didn't go far (Shango and Horses) while Nelson didn't perform much at all until the New Riders started in mid-1969. By late 1969, Torbert's ventures had folded, and he had gone to Hawaii to surf.
  • Torbert was actually on his way to England to join Matthew Kelly in his band (Gospel Oak), and stopped at his parents to pick up clothes, when Nelson called him about the New Riders. I find it a stretch that Nelson just "happened" to call when Torbert was in California and about to leave the country. I think Dave Torbert was the first round draft pick all along--in fact that may have been Nelson's plan for quite a while--but he simply wasn't available until Spring 1970. First Lesh and then Hunter were placeholders until Torbert was in town and willing. 

The only New Riders shows I know of in March 1970 are this one at the Inn Of The Beginning on Thursday, March 12, and then Friday and Saturday, March 13 and 14 at the New Orleans House in Berkeley. I think these three shows were Dave Torbert's debut with the New Riders, and a test to see if Torbert fit in live and got along with the rest of the band. Obviously he passed with flying colors, and the New Riders could be booked as part of the May 1970 Grateful Dead college tour.

The burst of late April 1970 New Riders shows (7 shows between April 17-30) was needed to get the band ready for the road. However, these few shows in March needed to be early enough to see if the band wanted to continue down the Torbert Highway, but clearly and fortunately they did. Since we have no tapes or setlists for New Riders shows after September 18, 1969, nor any before May 1970, we have no idea how the March 1970 and Fall 1969 shows compared, but at least we can see the outlines of how the group was thinking.

Some Considerations
It is a commonplace of the New Riders saga that the Dead realized that by using Nelson, Dawson and three Dead members, they could be their own opening act. Thus they would receive the opening act's fee at a considerably lower expense. This was tried once in August 1969, when the early New Riders went to Seattle, and then the idea was shelved until Spring of 1970. By Spring 1970, the Riders were down to only two Dead members (Garcia and Hart), rather than three. No one ever discusses the "time-to-market" of the New Riders concept (not that such a concept was identified at the time).

I think the principal factor was the release of Live/Dead in November 1969. Prior to that time, although the Grateful Dead were a wonderful live band, only those who had already seen them knew that, and touring became a Catch-22. The Dead couldn't receive good fees except where they had already played, and it limited their touring options to a small number of cities. In particular they couldn't put together a profitable string of one-nighters in the smaller cities between Dead strongholds like San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago, New York or Boston.

Once Live/Dead started to blast out of stereos in college dorm rooms across the country, all sorts of people suddenly wanted to see the Dead in person. Prior to the album, I think the Dead had a hard enough time getting paying shows, so asking that their completely unknown opening act receive a fee also (probably $500-1500) was not on the table. By the time the May college tour was booked, however, probably in February or so, every booking agent knew that the Dead would pack college gymnasiums from Alfred, NY to Kirkwood, MO, and so they did. Since promoters expected long shows, the better to sell more popcorn, the fact that the Dead brought their own opening act made a nice compromise, a little fatter fee for the band in return for simpler logistics for the promoter.

The Grateful Dead's finances had been destroyed by Lenny Hart, so they had to tour hard and maximize every dollar they could, but the New Riders of The Purple Sage assisted in that concept. If the Dead were headlining in an out of the way spot like Binghamton, NY, there wasn't touring rock bands around to open the show anyway, so the New Riders made a nice fit. Once Workingman's Dead was released in June, 1970, the audience grasped where they fit into the Dead's cosmology, but prior to that time it was a very new concept that would have had to be explained to promoters nationwide.

The truth is that I doubt the New Riders were actually billed anywhere on the Spring 1970 tour other than the Fillmore East. I think the shows were promoted as "An Evening With The Grateful Dead"--yet another now-conventional innovation--and the audiences had no idea who the New Riders were. If anyone actually saw those shows, it would be interesting to know what the perception of the New Riders was at the time.

The Inn Of The Beginning, 8201 Old Redwood Highway, Cotati, CA
Iconoclastic Cotati, CA was the "college town" associated with the then newly-opened (1966) Sonoma State College. Before wineries priced Cotati out of the range of regular people, the town was a bucolic hippie dream, a relaxed agricultural area, next to a college and still an easy drive to San Francisco. The Inn Of The Beginning, a sort of coffee house with music at 8201 Old Redwood Highway, opened on September 28, 1968 with the band Bronze Hog. The Bronze Hog still live in Cotati, as far as I know, and still periodically played The Inn Of The Beginning until it closed a few years ago, which nicely sums up the many charms of Cotati (and I'll bet they're not unknown at the Irish Bar which replaced it).

Jerry Garcia and The New Riders of The Purple Sage played a number of low-key shows at the Inn in 1969, often on weeknights. Its not surprising to find that when debuting a new bass player the next year, and possibly new material, they would choose to do so on a Wednesday night at a tiny, comfortable joint amongst friends.

[As I said at the top, I am now rejecting all my own reasoning, as upon reflection I think the March 12, 13 and 14 shows were never played. See my later post here]


  1. I hate to comment with trivia to such a post, which is absolutely fantastic. But if I read the image correctly, the NRPS gig is Thursday ("Th.: New Riders of the Purple Sage"), which would be 3/12/70.

    By the way, this very night I came across the following quote about Torbert, from Dryden. QUESTION: Why did Torbert leave the group? DRYDEN: "He wanted to make other music. And he only joined this band to make an album. He was on his was from Hawaii to Europe ... He got a call from Marmaduke, who said 'Why not come and help us make this [the first] album; play a bit'. He said okay and stayed with us."

    Source: Gene Kahlbacher, "Aquarian Interview: New Riders of the Purple Sage," Aquarian, January 29-February 12, 1977 [? somehow I didn't note the year ... I think it's 77], pp. 14, 27, 31 (quote from p. 14).

  2. Thanks, I fixed the date--too focused on the newspaper clipping.

    Dryden's comment, while perhaps a bit of sour grapes, is still very revealing. I take it to mean that after Fall 69, Garcia decided he was serious about the New Riders and wanted to make an album. If the New Riders were a recording band, it would increase their financial viability, which would have helped the Dead also (indirectly), so it fits in with the band's dire financial needs.

    I think it would fit that Lesh dropped out when they started planning to make an album. He was a friend, and would probably always help, but I doubt he ever wanted a permanent career as a country rock bass player. That meant a search for a real player, and that must have been the pitch to Torbert.

    Torbert was on his way to England to join Matt Kelly's band (Gospel Oak) who already had a contract, so the Riders must have made a pitch that they were not just a part-time bar band. Torbert made 5 albums with the band, so its not like he just dropped in, but clearly he needed to be enticed to join.

  3. "The whole saga about Hunter writing "Friend Of The Devil" with Dawson took place in Winter 1970."

    There is one scrap of evidence cutting against this proposition, and that's the "summer 1969 home recordings" tape that, AFAIK, is presumed to have originated with Hunter. It has Dawson singing, very rudimentary bass, some slightly different lyrics and no bridge. We know about the validity of tape labels, but 1969 makes sense given the other material on the tape (some very early workouts of Uncle John's Band melody and such).

    Also to reinforce Lesh as a stopgap, there's this from Dawson: "there was a chance that Hunter was going to be the bass player in the New Riders. As it turned out, Phil said ‘I’ll give it a try,’ and he had been playing with the Dead for long enough at that point that he was able to pull it off, and the same thing with Mickey. Mickey said, “Oh yeah, you need a drummer. I’ll try.’” (Brown, Toni A. 1991. New Riders of the Purple Sage Interview. Relix 18, 3 (June): 19-20).

  4. I found the link to Hunter's memoir. It was actually in Hunter's online journal for February 23 2006, recapped here (scroll down)

    Hunter describes writing the song and says "faster than you can say dog my cats it was in the Grateful Dead repertoire." My own feeling is that the Dead members have told the New Riders stories so many times that they believe them, but in fact the timelines are completely incorrect. This happens with family stories--they're just mythology.

  5. I completely believe the story about Lesh and Hart joining the group, by the way. I think there was an idea of using Hunter on bass, and when Phil volunteered Hunter stepped away. If my theory is correct, when Garcia and the Riders got "serious" in early 1970, Lesh officially stepped down, leaving the bass chair open.

    I think Hunter stepped forward once again, but Nelson and Garcia were thinking about Torbert.

    The Hart situation is simpler: I think he was serious about the New Riders, but the Lenny situation put too much pressure on him. I think Nelson and Torbert would have liked Chris Herold from NDRB (pure speculation), but he wasn't available either, as he was driving a hospital truck in order to avoid the draft, and could only play on weekends.

  6. About the tape with the early Friend of the Devil on it - since it contains what are obviously early jams of Feelin' Groovy (known debut 9/26/69) and Uncle John's (known debut 11/1/69), I think it must be from Sep/Oct '69 or earlier - anyway, well before winter '70. So Garcia didn't grab it for a while!
    (The unknown for me is, did the NRPS ever actually play it sometime in '69?)
    There could be other reasons we don't know about for the NRPS to go into hibernation that winter. But perhaps Phil's reluctance (maybe Garcia's as well?) is a good guess.

    In my tour through April '70 I noticed the sudden revival of activity for the New Riders - like you said, I figured it had to be due to the upcoming tour. I thought perhaps it was only in April that they decided the New Riders would join the tour; didn't know about these March shows.
    If the New Riders weren't booked separately, could it have been that late a decision for them to join the tour?

    You have a good discussion of the economics of touring - it may also help explain why the Dead were quick to release another live album (of mostly covers) in 1971...which turned out to be even more successful.

    Deadlists mentions somewhere that audience members might've had a hard time distinguishing between the acoustic and New Riders sets, taking NRPS to be "another Dead set". I'm sure they mystified many people (already in shock from the acoustic set!), at least til their first album came out.
    I haven't checked posters to see if the New Riders were listed separately.

  7. This tape of early material, what is its "manuscript tradition" (for lack of a better term)? When did it surface, who made it, and so on? Is it a continuous recording?

    We are used to blogger,MS Word or iPhoto date-stamping everything, but that wasn't the case then. If its spliced or dubbed, anything goes.

  8. It's spliced to hell, and in my distant memory of it (I only revisited FOTD this morning), it definitely sounds like different personnel on different days, probably different spaces. So, yeah, anything goes. But I do believe Hunter has vouched for its authenticity ... I'll have to poke around and see what I can find.

    When, as precisely as one can know, were Lennie's financial shenanigans uncovered? I am told we can see him in that little heliport scene before Altamont that has recently circulated; if so, he was still around 12/6/69.

  9. re: Lenny. I checked in McNally (p. 360-363), and suspicions arose in February, around the time of the Dead bust in New Orleans (1.31.70). Lenny wanted to move the GD offices to the Family Dog, and merge the two operations. However, he wouldn't show Chet Helms the books, and Chet sent him back to Novato.

    After some prevarication, including Jerry and MG losing their house, things came to a head the first week that Workingman's Dead was recorded. I'm not sure which week in March that was, but early.

    One other factor about the dormancy of the New Riders in March that I had not accounted for was the recording and mixing of Workingman's. There certainly was a lot going on that month, with Sam Cutler and John McIntire coming in as managers as well.

  10. Also seemingly missing from the March list of shows is a March 18 performance at the Family Dog On The Beach. I checked TJS and this show seems to have slipped through the net, although it does exist on the FD list. Details:

    Rolling Thunder (Shoshone Medicine Man), New Riders of the Purple Sage (Marmaduke, Jerry Garcia, Dave Nelson, Dave Torbert, Mickey Hart)with Hot Tuna [Benefit for the Suns (sic) of Thunder Commune of Elko, NV]. The Barb listing is en route to the usual suspects - together with the New Orleans House listing from earlier in the week - which is missing from TJS.

  11. March 13-14, 1970 at NOH are listed at TJS. Concern is your "Scenedrome" scan which shows BBHC there.

    re: 3/18, I am wondering what the consensus would be in terms of Garcia's presence. We are learning that he flew back and forth a lot more than I would have thought, but I harbor some doubts about flying back from Buffalo (3/17 gig with GD) for a 3/18 benefit at a small club before heading back to Port Chester gig on 3/20.

    Now, if they were trying out Torbert, that may have raised the stakes for Jerry to be there. But it's also possible this is a gig without Jerry. Do we know of any others in this period? Might be worth asking Nelson about.

  12. I had always taken the FOTD tape to be a stop & start demo tape from a narrow span of time, and that it's more or less Hunter's original tape....these do not seem like the kind of rehearsals anyone would bother copying from one tape to another.
    (I also wonder if this was the Uncle John's instrumental Hunter listened to when he wrote the lyrics?)
    But there's no way to tell, really - it's quite possible that the FOTD demo might've been recorded over a random old rehearsal tape, maybe as late as March '70! The precise date doesn't really matter, though.

    And your new speculation that the NRPS had no performances in March '70 raises a new question for me... Is it possible that the band was actually dissolved in Nov '69 (for whatever reason), only to be revived when someone had the idea of using them as the opening act the next spring? I could be off-base there, I'm not that up on NRPS doings. Of course, it would be impossible to tell what offstage rehearsals (if any) there might've been before April '70...but I'm inclined to think, no shows = no band. (And not just a reluctant Lesh.)

  13. re: "the precise date doesn't really matter though." ha ha, good one. It does on this blog.

    More seriously, I think you raise a good point about the NRPS's "existence." I'm sure they existed to Nelson and Dawson, but until Garcia was on board with a lineup that was operational, they were kind of in limbo. I think there was a lot of stress on the Dead, and fussing over the Riders can't have helped matters.

    On the other hand, Garcia wanted a vehicle to play pedal steel. He stopped playing it with the Dead once the Riders started up, and he wasn't going to get to do it unless he had a second band.