The current incarnation of New Riders of the Purple Sage may have started with nostalgia in mind, but that was never the goal.
Since 2005, co-founding guitarist and vocalist David Nelson has led the band — also featuring longtime member Buddy Cage on pedal steel guitar, guitarist Michael Falzarano, bassist Ronnie Penque and drummer Johnny Markowski — through close to 100 gigs a year and two new studio records, including this year’s “17 Pine Avenue.”
And while the band members are still mindful of the country rock band’s long history and its connections with The Grateful Dead, they’re also looking to the future.
“Right from the beginning we decided that we weren’t going to go down the nostalgia path,” Falzarano said from his home in New York City, shortly before heading out on the second leg of the band’s summer tour last week. The band returns to The Egg for the third time on Friday night.
New Riders of the Purple Sage
When: 8 p.m. Friday
Where: The Egg, Empire State Plaza, Albany
How Much: $29.50
More Info: 473-1845, www.theegg.org
“I mean, look — it’s a great legacy and a great history, and you try to honor and stay true to that as much as you can, but as musicians and artists, you’ve gotta move forward. At first we were just playing the old tunes and a couple of covers, but . . . four of us are songwriters — me, Johnny, Ronnie and David — and we had some other inclinations.”
New material has paid off in the form of a new and younger audience for the band, which first formed in 1969 out of a musical partnership between songwriter John “Marmaduke” Dawson and legendary Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia.
“When we first started, obviously, it was more of a nostalgia thing for a lot of older people, you know,” Falzarano said. “And then slowly we started seeing some younger kids — the curiosity thing. And now it’s shifted — there are more younger people. There’s definitely some of the older gang still there, but it’s really evolved into sort of a newer audience, so to speak. By young, I don’t necessarily mean kids in their 20s, but guys and women in their 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s.”
Tied to Grateful Dead
The band’s long history is intrinsically tied into The Grateful Dead’s history, and the Haight-Ashbury music scene of the late ’60s. The first lineup of the band featured three Grateful Dead members — Garcia on pedal steel guitar, Phil Lesh on bass and Mickey Hart on drums.
“The original, classic lineup . . . that was, I don’t know how many years that went on for, but that was an explosion,” Falzarano said. “Everybody points to the first album [1971’s self-titled effort], the first lineup with Garcia on pedal steel. That’s a fantastic album; every single song from that album holds up, and we play every song from that album now.”
By the time of Garcia’s departure in 1971, with Cage stepping in, the band had become its own entity, and in 1973 the group released its most well-known album, “The Adventures of Panama Red.”
The band soldiered on through the ’80s, shedding members and gaining new ones every few years — most notably the departure of Cage and Nelson in 1982. Dawson led the band until its breakup in 1997.
Falzarano was part of the same musical scene at the time, playing with Jefferson Airplane spin-off Hot Tuna in 1983 (he later returned to that group in 1990, staying until 2002). When Nelson and Cage reconvened the group in 2005 (with an ailing Dawson’s blessing — he died in 2009 of stomach cancer), Falzarano was a natural fit with the new lineup.
“Before I was in Hot Tuna, I was living in New York City before I moved to California, the San Francisco area, for 10 years,” Falzarano said. “That’s how I know all the guys in Hot Tuna, New Riders, The Dead, everybody. I used to play a lot of New Riders songs in bars around the time, and when this thing came about, I was asked to join this particular lineup. It’s been the same lineup [since 2005]; in fact, I think it’s the longest-running single lineup of the band — not that that matters.”
The Grateful Dead connection still remains in this new era of the band, thanks to Dead lyricist Robert Hunter, who co-wrote seven songs for each of the new albums with Nelson.
The band’s first album in this new era, 2009’s “Where I Come From,” was the band’s first studio recording since 1992’s “Midnight Moonlight,” but picks up where the band left off with amiable country and roots-rock and psychedelic lyrics. There was considerably less of a wait for “17 Pine Avenue” — and according to Falzarano, who produced both of the albums, a follow-up may take even less time to come out.
“We have a whole other album or two’s worth of new material to do at any time, but we probably wouldn’t get to that until the beginning of next year,” he said. “We do plan to go in and record another album, even though cost-wise or sales-wise it doesn’t really pay off anymore. But it does get new music into the world, and it does create a buzz to get new fans to come and check it out.”
He can’t deny that much of the band’s appeal stems from The Grateful Dead connection, at least initially. But it’s the familiar, rootsy sound of the songs that keeps fans, new and old, coming back for more.
“You can’t deny the fact that Garcia was in the first version of the band — he was the gateway, the gateway drug, almost, to the band,” Falzarano said.
“But the history, as fans learn about the music — and it is a timeless music; it’s not like it’s dated in a time, like tech metal from the ’90s, or this from the ’80s. It’s timeless roots music based in bluegrass, blues and country, and people latch onto it if they want to. And I think we execute it really well; we’ve done our best to stay true to the legacy and history of the band while pushing the thing forward with new music, and we just strive to do that at every show. And it seems to be paying off.”