It’s tough to feel an up-close and personal connection with a band whose glory days passed decades before you were a glimmer of your parent’s imagination. If you’re lucky enough, maybe mom and dad passed down their vinyl, and took you back in time to an era of trailblazers and musical pioneers. In my case, New Riders of the Purple Sage was one of those bands that seemed like they could only exist on a record, or possibly even a fairytale, but certainly not real life. I was a 6-year old girl singing “Panama Red,” thinking it was a song about a guy on a horse. I surely never thought that one day, 27 years later, I’d be buying tickets to a show right down the street.
When I showed up at the Westcott Theater, I was surprised to find that I was in the company of mainly stage techs, bartenders, Box Office Guy, and maybe 15 ticket-holding fans… A generous estimation. I thought to myself, “That’s ok. Punctuality has never been the strong suit of an older hippie generation; they’ll show up.” In the meantime, I was fortunate enough to catch most of the first opening act, The Waydown Wailers, who set the tone for a great night ahead. From Canton, New York, these guys brought a high-energy set of southern, “outlaw-style” rock that kept all 15 of us foot-tappin’. It was nice to catch up with the guys after their set and chat about what drives them musically. Drawing inspiration from acts ranging from The Band to The Black Crowes, the folk of Dylan, and of course, the ultimate southern rock of Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Waydown Wailers kept it fresh with a mix of upbeat funk, southern rock ballads, and extended jam-band style instrumentals. The uncontrived gritty, and melodic vocals of Dave Parker suited the band’s sound perfectly. Throw in some funky slap bass riffs, energized drum beats, classic rock guitar, and we got a sound that never fell flat. In a tribute to the great Levon Helm, we even got treated with a little bit of mandolin. Add some “noodle-marionette” dance moves of bass player Connor Pelkey, and the end result was a fully entertained crowd. After a year of playing together, these guys are finally getting into the studio, and producing an album. I’m sure it will be a treat.
Unfortunately, all the momentum and positive vibes didn’t lead us into the main event. After The Waydown Wailers, we had high expectations for the next opener. Instead, we watched the clock through a second opening act that left much to be desired. Upstate, a group of young guys from Rochester, New York, delivered a high school, Battle of the Bands-caliber set—at best. I don’t recall much of the lyrical content, because I honestly don’t remember hearing many lyrics at all. The songs came across as instrumental, wannabe versions of ‘90s grunge-rock greats. Tough to accomplish that without a killer lead singer, and a drummer lacking any signs of a tempo—you get my point. All I remember is that it was loud. Most of us used this time to re-fill our empty beer cups, grab some fresh air, and discuss our favorite NRPS songs.
At about 10:30, everyone was starting to feel energized again as the stage-techs set up the last of the equipment. At this point, there were maybe, at best, 100 loyal fans, scattered around the floor. NRPS finally took the stage, and we were ready for the show! The current band lineup includes David Nelson, Buddy Cage, Ronnie Penque, Michael Falzarano, and Johnny Markowski. This Westcott Theater show was a special night, as it celebrated the band’s eighth anniversary since their renaissance following a seven year hiatus.
Kicking it off with “Where I Come From,” we immediately knew that they were going to give us exactly what we wanted. It is no easy task to maintain the musical integrity of a band of greats with a 45 year history, but these guys did just that.
We’re all familiar with the band’s giant stash of marijuana hits such as “Panama Red” (which disappointingly did not get played), to “Henry,” and the not-so-subtle “Higher,” but we know there’s more to them than that. Although “Henry” got everyone singing loud and spilling beer, we also enjoyed the sweeter side of some love songs like “Louisiana Lady,” and a slightly darker tone heard in tracks like “Ghost Train Blues.” Whether they’re singing about weed, love, or the countryside, the crisp simplicity of their music is what makes New Riders of the Purple Sage so refreshing. Often times, the message is “simplicity” itself.
The entire show came together like a long jam session, but never lost momentum. Surprisingly, many of the shorter songs actually did turn into 15 minute jams. That is when we really heard the Grateful Dead come out. All the free space in the crowd meant plenty of room for twirly dancing. It’s never a bad night when you’re at a live show, listening to a group of ultra talented musicians jam out and pay homage to legends. It’s also not every day you can look up at a stage and see a man playing the pedal steel. Joining the band in the early 70s as Jerry Garcia’s replacement, Buddy Cage authentically maintains such an important of the original sound and history.
The show ended, appropriately, with popular Dead tune “Ripple,” and the whole crowd singing along, and those who passed on the opportunity to see these guys really missed out on something special. It’s not everyday we get to experience this kind of musical history. As long as we keep showing up, the music won’t get lost in the past. And it shouldn’t, because it still matters.