It was 1970. Someone had come up with the grand idea of hiring a train to cross Canada, arranging a tour including some of the most expressive, intelligent and crazy musicians of the day -- Janis Joplin, the Band, the Grateful Dead among them -- and filling the passenger coaches with enough booze to inebriate a sizable army.
The Trans-Canadian Festival Express rolled, and the musicians wiled away their time on the train by jamming and drinking until fingers, throats and livers gave out. Much of this is documented in the recently released "Festival Express" film, which took decades to come out, but ultimately arrived like a message in a bottle from rock's mythological, magical past.
There's Jerry Garcia jamming with the Band's Rick Danko, while Joplin drinks straight from the bottle, and Bobby Weir wanders around looking wild-eyed and pleasantly dazed. Garcia, it seemed, was the last musician standing most nights, his desire to dig deeper and deeper into his muse insatiable, and no amount of boozing (and whatever else) sufficient to loosen his grip on the guitar.
Also on that tour was one of what would become a lengthy list of Grateful Dead "spin-off" projects, a loose collective of maverick musicians fusing country music to rock 'n' roll, poised to turn a generation of "hippies" on to the charms of the ol' C&W in the process. The New Riders of the Purple Sage formed around the songwriting brilliance of one John Dawson, who was a friend of Garcia's and, whether he knew it or not, a true musical renegade.
Garcia was looking for a vehicle to expand his vocabulary as a pedal steel guitarist and, as the Dead's schedule allowed circa 1969, seeking a gig to fill the time. Dawson had a bunch of songs he wanted to share. Garcia was game, David Nelson joined as lead guitarist, and the Dead's rhythm section -- bassist Phil Lesh and drummer Mickey Hart -- tossed their hats into the ring as well. The New Riders were born.
Three decades later, Dawson is happily retired and living in Mexico, and Nelson has assembled a new ensemble with his former partner's full blessing. Like so many things Dead-related, the music sounds as fresh now as it did then, the lambent, forgiving magic that saw the Dead through 30 years rearing its shaggy head yet again.
Nelson has teamed with Buddy Cage, pedal steel legend and a New Rider since Garcia's schedule required his stepping down, shortly after the Trans-Canadian Festival Express jaunt. Uncannily, the New Riders of 2007 sound like a turbo-charged version of the original group, Dawson's songs having handily stood the test of time with dignity, and Cage's still-daring pedal steel work stretching the envelope of both country and rock. Today, rather ironically, NRPS is a "jam band," a chicken come home to roost just as the music it had such a steady hand in creating is enjoying a significant renaissance.
All of this is in ample evidence on "NRPS: Live New Years Eve 2006," a twin-disc set recently released independently, via www.NRPSLive.com. Line is overdrawn Appropriately, the collection was recorded live at the Mexicali Blues Cafe -- a joint that takes its name from the Bob Weir/John Barlow tune initially appearing on another Grateful Dead spin-off, Weir's debut solo outing "Ace" -- in Teaneck, N.J.
The leisurely amble and unstudied blending of country and rock has not changed, not been at all dimmed by the passing decades. What's more, NRPS in the present tense is not just reprising former glories, but performing additional investigative work, digging deeper into the soil of the improvisational country-rock that the New Riders -- along with Gram Parsons and only a few others -- helped invent.
Today, Clive Davis may be known principally as the Svengali behind "American Idol's" slew of ready-made recording artists, and the head of J Records, but Davis has a great track record prior to all of this saccharine nonsense, and it includes signing the New Riders to a Columbia recording contract back in 1971. (Davis, back then, was a real innovator and had a positive impact on the careers of artists as diverse as Miles Davis and, later, Aerosmith.) The eponymous NRPS album is now rightly held to be a classic and received an impeccable remastering from Columbia/Legacy a few years back. It was followed by a string of pretty much impeccable records throughout the '70s and early '80s, with Dawson taking over the reins in full after Nelson and Cage signed off in '82.
Really, the time couldn't be better for a refurbished NRPS to be making the rounds again, for the jam-band idiom has become the proving ground for improvising rock-based musicians, folks who refuse to acknowledge the perceived boundaries between musical styles. The party the group started hosting at the dawn of the '70s never really ended, though the New Riders did head upstairs for a brief nap.
The New Riders of the Purple Sage perform with guests the Fibs and Paul Isaac & the Stonehearts in Club Infinity, 8166 Main St., Williamsville, beginning at 7 p.m. Tuesday. Tickets are $13 advance, $15 on the day of the show, and can be found at the Club Infinity box office or through ww.Tickets.com.