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Friday, December 17, 2010

New Riders of the Purple Sage at the Livery Friday 12/17

There is a quote that reads “life is a journey not a destination.” The culmination of experiences along the way is what matters most. It’s unclear whether this famous line by Ralph Waldo Emerson applies to a life that actually begins with a journey. But that’s how it happened for renowned pedal steel guitarist Buddy Cage of the New Riders of the Purple Sage. His musical trip began with a journey and an infamous one at that. By 1970 Cage had hooked up with Canadian duo Ian & Sylvia just as their influential country-rock group Great Speckled Bird was taking off. Before he knew it Cage and Great Speckled Bird were immortalized in the film Festival Express, a documentary about a traveling music festival of the same name by train across Canada. Also on the train were the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, Buddy Guy, and Delaney & Bonnie. During the shooting of the movie Jerry Garcia took a keen interest in the pedal steel guitar playing of Cage. Unbeknownst to Cage at the time Garcia was eyeballing him as a substitute for a new band Garcia was in called the New Riders of the Purple Sage. According to Cage, Garcia was becoming so busy that a sub made sense. “Garcia really tore into steel playing around 1969 and just went nuts with it,” Cage said. “He kept it up until NRPS put out a recording which is what they did in the day. Prior to that Jerry was just plunk-plunking around on the steel; he wasn’t that good at it. But during this time he was doing unbelievable shows playing acoustic guitar with (David) Nelson and a couple of the Riders but it was mostly Grateful Dead guys that formed an ad-hoc beginning set. Then they would switch to an electric New Riders country set and then they would switch over to the standard Grateful Dead two-sets which kept Jerry onstage for up to four and-a-half hours. Then that became too much even for Garcia. In the end NRPS were really getting good but Garcia wasn’t getting any better (on pedal steel). He was ready for someone to take the gig and I was the guy. Plus it was time for Garcia to go do serious work on Working Man’s Dead and American Beauty.”

The off-shoot band of the Grateful Dead then went on to tour extensively and record landmark albums like Oh, What a Mighty Time. In between all the craziness Cage was asked to record with Tommy James and the Shondells, fellow Canadian Anne Murray, and Bob Dylan. Something about Cage’s style of pedal steel playing attracted Dylan’s ear. Cage then recorded on perhaps Dylan’s most personal album Blood on the Tracks. "The stuff that I do is different than other people," Cage said. "That's what it's all about anyway--as an individual playing, right? On the Bob Dylan Blood on the Tracks stuff for instance, the cut "Meet Me in the Morning" defines a whole different way of steel playing. It was just something that I knew how to do. It wouldn't have fit with the Nashville sound of the day. They used asked me 'Why don't you move down to Nashville?' I would say ‘Why don't you kiss my ass?' Just so I can fit into some kind of mold or plug-in thing? I don't think so."

Even then those developments were a long way from when Cage starting playing music. In the early 60s he had to realize the only outlet for his instrument at that time was country music. Just prior Cage had been newly influenced by pedal steel master Ralph Mooney (Merle Haggard, Buck Owens). The only problem was Cage hated country music. “I never had a desire to be a country western player, " Cage said while he waited for sound check in Chicago. "When I was kid I thought it was cornball shit and hayseed. It just didn’t work for me. I ended up with country and western music until I found really good players and good bosses who taught me what was good country, and what was not. They gave me a great education into what was good bluegrass and stuff that was hard to listen to.” One of those good bosses ended up being early rock-n-roller Ronnie Hawkins, whose claim to fame about that time was having hired the band before they became The Band. Today the New Riders still perform and record. They have a new record out called Where I Come From. I asked Cage if he ever thought what’s left of the Dead and the New Riders would hook up for shows like they famously did. “Why yes,” Cage said. “We have a New Years gig in Pennsylvania with Bill Kreutzmann (Dead drummer) and Papa Mali in a group they call 7 Walkers.” So yes, from reluctant country and western pedal steel player to jam band NRPS and beyond, Cage and company are still around and doing fine.

The New Riders of the Purple Sage at the Livery, Benton Harbor, tonight 9 pm (doors 8). More info at:
The Livery website

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