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New Riders of the Purple Sage at The Rusty Nail

Doug Collette By

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New Riders of the Purple Sate
The Rusty Nail
Stowe, Vermont
September 18, 2014

In the seventh year of the modern revival, the New Riders of the Purple Sage returned to Vermont—where they've been before titular leader David Nelson knowingly observed—to play at Stowe's revitalized Rusty Nail. The current quintet, all of whom have their respective cache in the legacy of the band and its community, played a potent two sets, the first of which was discernibly adventurous enough to excite an audience hoping to indulge in more than just nostalgia (and perfectly primed via an opening set by Burlington's Cats Under the Stars paying homage to the late Jerry Garcia).

The opener "Where I Come From," the title track of their 2009 album, combined with other modern NRPS material, to comprise the bulk of the selections. Setting the tone of their performance early guitarist Nelson and company- guitarist/vocalist Michael Falzarano, pedal steel guitarist Buddy Cage (who assumed Jerry Garcia's position in the band when he left), bassist Ronnie Penque and drummer Johnny Markowski-flexed their musicianly muscles vigorously. It was a harbinger of more extensive improvisation to come and the first display of how the combination of Nelson's Telecaster and Cage's instrument makes the sound of the band so sleek on numbers like "Let It Grow."

Similar to the means Garcia transposed his banjo technique to electric guitar, Nelson uses his well-honed skill on acoustic instruments to play quickly and with great fluidity, so that the arcing lines Cage launches intertwine with his notes. And it's a tribute to the latter's command of a difficult instrument that he can play with more conventional technique when the tune calls for it, as on the second set's "Last Lonely Eagle;" like "Henry," "Panama Red" and "Louisiana Lady," that was one of a small handful of selections from past NRPS discography that helped pace the later interval so smoothly.

In fact, during the first ninety minutes, the reliance on material of more recent vintage such as "Higher"—the notable exception "Friend of the Devil," humorously introduced by way of the story of it's germination David Nelson—gave the first portion of the performance an almost indiscernible momentum. With each successive jam, the Riders went further afield, in more dense interaction, picking up cumulative speed so that when they finished with a flourish, the performance might well have been complete- and satisfyingly so for the audience comfortably ensconced in the well-designed venue: this cool autumn night, the Rusty Nail's various sight-lines, including upper balcony and side-stage boxes, became a reflection of the band's varied approach to their music.

In thanking those remaining for the second set, Markowski misspoke slightly in stating the best music happens later on because the next hour or so found NRPS taking few chances to speak of, concentrating more on economical structures, tight ensemble work and vocal arrangements: Nelson, and to a slightly lesser extent, Falzarano and Penque, all echoed the gentle vulnerability of the late John Dawson, the founder of NRPS and the group harmonies, though hardly flashy, were flush with emotion.

The most memorable moments of the last hour or so were cover songs. Chuck Berry's "You Never Can Tell' closed the set proper on a rousingly good natured note, upon which the New Riders expanded (perhaps a bit too ingratiatiatingly so?) with Bob Dylan's "Rainy Day Woman #'s 12 & 35." But the slightly overwrought refrain of that tune disappeared into the air quickly as Nelson began his gentle delivery of the Grateful dead's "Ripple:" whether or not it was intended self-referentially, the generosity of spirit at the heart of the song only made the titular leader of the band's wish to the crowd (many of whom were more than tipsy) to "Get home safely" a serious admonition. Like the rest of the New Riders of the Purple Sage's performance, it was worth hearing and taking to heart.

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