By MICHAEL LISI, Special to the Times Union
ALBANY -- The New Riders of the Purple Sage are in the saddle again.
The band, which got its start in 1969 as a vehicle for Jerry Garcia to practice his pedal steel guitar, saw its best days come and go decades ago -- a long strange trip that brought the band to the Palace Theatre for several shows in the early 1970s. But the Riders are back. They re-formed last year with original band guitarist/vocalist David Nelson and longtime group pedal steel player Buddy Cage in the fold. Sure, the Riders are rooted in the past. But they are much more than mere musical ghosts and they proved it in a triumphant return to The Egg on Thursday night.
The Riders, who played to a packed house at The Egg last year, played an inspired two-hour show that had the 400 or so fans packed into the intimate Lewis A. Swyer Theatre singing along and cheering at the first strains of most of the songs. The fans, the majority of whom were baby boomers in their 50s and 60s, were plenty familiar with almost every song the band played. They couldn't get enough of Cage's sometimes ethereal pedal steel guitar or Nelson's nasal voice and credible lead guitar work.
Things didn't seem so promising at first, with the band sauntering on stage about 15 minutes late to start the show. After Nelson spent a painful three minutes or so tuning up on stage, the band opened up with a cheesy, tired, whiny version of "Last Lonely Eagle." It took the New Riders about two more songs before they found their groove, and once they hit that stride, they kept it, even after a long 30-minute intermission between sets. Augmented by former Hot Tuna guitarist Michael Falzarano, and a solid rhythm section, the New Riders rode tall, turning in vintage, classic, suitably sloppy versions of "I Don't Know You," "Louisiana Lady" and the swampy 15-minute jam that was "Dirty Business." The band's rendition of "15 Days Under The Hood" was intense and immediate, Cage's cutting pedal steel licks mixing comfortably with Nelson's jangly, country-fused guitar leads. Nelson's voice had certain urgency to it, unlike his delivery in most of the band's upbeat country-folk songs.
There's still plenty of spirit left in the New Riders, and especially in Cage's pedal steel playing. Wearing a tie-dye shirt and moccasins, Cage effortlessly laced each song with his pedal steel licks, his big sound perfection in songs such as "Diamond Joe," "Sutter's Mill" and the beloved "Henry," which had a few fans dancing in and out of their seats.
There was a downside, especially when bassist Ronnie Penque lent his off-key vocals to "Henry" and two other songs. Falzarano's voice is decent, but not nearly as good as Nelson's, whose take on Bob Dylan's "'Absolutely Sweet Marie" was absolutely sweet.
All in all, the New Riders of the Purple Sage were enjoyable on Thursday night. This band is more than just a shadow of its former self; they continue to be the real deal.
Michael Lisi is a freelance music critic from Schenectady and a frequent contributor to the Times Union.