Sunday, February 12, 2012

New Riders of the Purple Sage at Peninsula School 5/12/70 and 5/28/71

Peninsula School is a progressive, private K-12 school located in Menlo Park, California. Founded in 1925,  Peninsula is located in a huge Victorian house on wooded grounds in the eastern part of Menlo Park, just off Middlefield Road. As a junior in high school in Palo Alto, I had never heard of the school until I saw a hand lettered sign at Menlo Park’s Discount Records announcing a Tuesday afternoon gig by the New Riders of the Purple Sage there in April, 1970 (the most likely date appears to be 4/28/70). Because I was not yet of driving age, I rode up there after school on my bike.

Members of the Grateful Dead family had multiple connections to Peninsula School. Bob Weir, John “Marmaduke” Dawson, and recording engineer Bob Matthews all attended the school at various times, and Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter apparently played their first gig there back in 1961. A useful discussion of the school and its shared history with the Dead can be found here.

I had known about Garcia’s flirtations with the pedal steel for some time, largely through its appearance on tunes like CSNY’s “Teach Your Children,” the Airplane tune, “The Farm,” and the album version of “Dire Wolf” on Workingman’s Dead. I was also well aware of Garcia’s musical collusion with a character known as “Marmaduke” through frequent listings in newspaper calendars for “Marmaduke and Friends” which over time had morphed into listings for “The New Riders of the Purple Sage.” There was also a demo tape (later released on an NRPS album, Before Time Began) comprising early versions of “Superman” and “Garden of Eden” that featured Garcia’s loopy steel licks that got very infrequent airplay on KSAN, but that was about all I knew of them. I had tried to see the NRPS late the previous year when they were allegedly billed at the Poppycock in downtown Palo Alto, but they turned out to be no-shows the night they listed in the newspaper ad. The ad for the Peninsula show listed “Jerry Garcia, Mickey Hart, Bob Weir and others from the Grateful Dead,” but Weir was a no-show unless he arrived after I left.

Garcia as Roadie 4/28/70
Photo: M. Parrish
When I arrived at Peninsula, parked my bike, and ponied up my $3. I joined a modest crowd (certainly less than 100 people who mingled on the playground beside the school. The bands set up in a handball court of all places, and there was no backstage whatever. In retrospect, this probably would have been my best chance ever to strike up a conversation with Garcia, who was holding forth with what clearly were a bunch of old friends, but I was far too shy to do so.

Opening Act 4/28/70 Photo: M. Parrish
The New Riders were preceded by another band that played some free jazz with rock overtones. I have no idea who they were, and they didn’t leave much of an impression. Once they had finished, the Riders started to set up, and I was struck by the fact that Garcia, with no road crew in sight, assembled his own pedal steel.

NRPS 4/28/70 Photo: M. Parrish
Recent speculations suggest that the configuration of the New Riders that recorded their first album had most likely only been together a few weeks at the time of this show. Nonetheless, their mutual connections went back several years, to the dawn of the San Francisco rock scene. Garcia and guitarist David Nelson were bluegrass buddies who first started playing together back in the 1961 or so. Dawson, a bit younger, had also been part of the south bay folk-bluegrass scene, and was apparently a sometime member of Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions, the jug band that spawned the Dead in 1964. Nelson had relatively recently played with bassist David Torbert in the mysterious New Delhi River Band, and succeeded the Dead’s lyricist Robert Hunter, their bassist Phil Lesh, and their recording engineer Bob Matthews in the NRPS bass slot. Dead drummer Mickey Hart held down the drum chair as he would do until the end of the year, when he would cede it to Spencer Dryden.

Garcia on Steel 4/28/70 Photo: M. Parrish
The New Riders began their set with an energetic version of Chuck Berry’s “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” sung by the diminutive, mustachioed Dawson, center stage (or racketball court), who kept time with his Guild acoustic guitar. This was my first encounter with lead guitarist David Nelson, and his Nashville licks from his hot-rodded Telecaster were as much a defining element of the early New Riders as Garcia’s inimitable take on the pedal steel. Bassist Dave Torbert, presumably only a few weeks into his term in the band, was still a tentative presence, playing solid bass and adding harmony vocals when the occasion demanded. Off to stage right was Hart, wearing a Giant’s cap and the epitome of a laid back drummer, in sharp contrast to his often furious onstage presence with the Dead.  Wedged in between Hart and Dawson was Garcia, rapturously hunched over his pedal steel and sporting a few days of growth towards the latest incarnation of his trademark beard.

Mickey Hart 4/28/70 Photo: M. Parrish
I don’t have a detailed set list for the show, but it did feature a number of Dawson originals, including ”Henry,” “Louisiana Lady,” and “Glendale Train” alongside country classics like “Truck Drivin’ Man,” “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke, and Loud, Loud Music” and “Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down.” As the afternoon shadows grew long, I had to beat a retreat back to Palo Alto, so I don’t know just how long the Riders played, or what other gems they might have pulled out.

Thirteen months later, the New Riders were again booked to play at Peninsula, for a Friday afternoon gig preceding their much more substantial payday at Winterland later in the evening. I was scheduled to attend the Dead/NRPS show that evening, but couldn’t resist the opportunity to see the band in this intimate setting once more. For the 1971 gig, the powers that be at Peninsula had the bands set up on the deck at the front of the main building of the school. Again, a relatively obscure rock band opened the show. With a nod to Garcia, they opened their set with a speedy rendition of the Dead’s first album arrangement of “Cold Rain and Snow.”

Marmaduke 5/28/71 Photo: M. Parrish
New Riders 5/28/71 Photo M. Parrish
When the Riders set up, consipuous in its absence was Garcia’s pedal steel rig. Once the band took the stage, we were informed that Garcia was under the weather and had chosen to rest up for the evening’s show rather than schlepping down to Menlo Park for a few hours. Thus we heard one of the very few New Riders gigs of that era without a pedal steel player. By this time, I had probably heard the New Riders a half dozen times, and their afternoon set held few surprises other than the absence of their steel guitarist. Dawson was shaggier, and was now playing electric rather than acoustic guitar. Spencer Dryden was a dynamic presence on drums, and Torbert was a much more commanding presence on bass and vocals. Because of the logistics involved in going home, picking up my dad, and driving to Winterland, I again missed the end of the Riders set. The drive up to the city turned out to be for naught, as Garcia’s illness had deepened, and the Friday Dead show was cancelled and rescheduled until Sunday evening. We did get to the Sunday show, missing the legendary Saturday show where much of the audience was dosed by some spiked Kool Aid. As far as I know, the 1971 gig was the last time the New Riders played at Peninsula School, and Garcia’s tenure with the band was only to last a few more months. These two shows provided great opportunities to hear the group up close, in their formative stages as a touring entity.