Album Review

New Riders Of The Purple Sage - Self-Titled

New Riders of the Purple Sage - self-titled

If hippie Northern California country-rock is your thing, it doesn't come any fresher than this. The New Riders' 1971 debut, a gem, is now re-mastered with three bonus tracks and eight pages of liner notes to fill in all those gaps of what you thought you knew.

In 1969, John "Marmaduke" Dawson was a longtime Bay Area folk presence with an acoustic guitar and a passel of songs. Old buddy Jerry Garcia had just bought a pedal steel guitar and was learning to play. Over time they acquired David Nelson on Telecaster, Dave Torbert on bass and Spencer Dryden from the Airplane on drums. For two years they were the Grateful Dead's opening act and insidious countrified influence.

OK, they sound like the Grateful Dead. Granted. But it might be fair to consider how much Workingman's Dead sounds like the New Riders and not vice versa. It would have been fortunate had Dawson's voice not sounded so much like Garcia's -- that would have helped carve a separate identity, yes -- but that's the way it is. (Garcia doesn't sing a lick, but you think you're hearing him the whole time.) The harmonies of Dawson, Nelson and Torbert, however, eat the Grateful Dead for breakfast. They're particularly gorgeous on "Portland Woman" and "All I Ever Wanted".

There are no lost anthems here, but many tunes -- among them "I Don't Know You", "Glendale Train" and "Last Lonely Eagle" -- linger pleasantly in the memory. David Nelson gets off many good chicken-pickin' Tele runs, and Garcia's generally a delight, favoring the same happy little circular figures he always played and sounding pretty much like himself, just on a different instrument. His only misstep is the "Dirty Business" pedal steel distortion experiment, which must have seemed like the right thing to do at the time, and 30 years later what's done is done.

The bonus tracks are live from the Fillmore: a tight Dawson original, "Superman", and ragged covers of "Down In The Boondocks" and "The Weight". If nothing else, they help zing you back a little more to a time that seemed hungover when it was happening, but sure feels fresh and full of promise now, looking back on it.