A quite mature but still rocking New Riders of the Purple Sage played a great show Friday night at the Egg’s Swyer Theater.
Opening with their anthem hit, “Panama Red,” the bluegrass tune that lasted at least two generations starting in the early ’70s, it was a good move to get that song done, clearing the way for their signature hippie tunes.
Their signature pedal steel guitar sound was led by Buddy Cage, the direct replacement of Jerry Garcia, who left in 1971 to meet the full-time demands of the Grateful Dead. David Nelson, also from that same year, did most of the singing and played lead guitar next to Cage.
Along with their country tunes — what’s typically called “alt-country” these days — they rocked out on a bunch, like “Louisiana Lady,” the Rolling Stones cover “Dead Flowers,” and “Henry.”
They covered the standard “This May Be the Last Time,” extending the tune with a pretty cool jam led by no one and everyone.
Nelson sang a wonderful tune — similar to a Garcia ballad — with the band accompanying on the harmonies. Rhythm guitarist Michael Falzarano sang the saddest, most moving tune of the night, “Gypsy Cowboy,” as Cage brought it home with his guitar fills.
Even drummer Johnny Markowski sang lead for a tune, “I Know There’s Someone Else,” while driving his bluegrass tempo. Markowski laid down a pretty loud and stiff snare drum without missing a measure;. While it drove the sound forward nicely, it didn’t always fit with the group’s loose feel.
Nelson introduced “I Don’t Know You,” calling it the first song they ever recorded for their first album on Side One.
“Remember albums had sides back then,” he said. “You would turn it over to hear the other side.”
“Where I Come From,” a smooth-driving rock tune sung by Nelson and colored by Cage, captures well where they are now. They have no axe to grind and nothing left to prove; the audience — mostly 50-plus men — did not come to see flashy chops or wild jams.
The New Riders delivered organic rock and country songs, strong vocals, solid band synergy, good grooves, and some impressive jamming. They all can play their instruments, as seen throughout the show, but their strength is keeping the collective sound together.
These guys still live on the road. Playing late and long is nothing to them — the first set alone lasted some 90 minutes. All of them showed their comfort level on stage when they were left to fill while bassist Ronnie Penque replaced a broken string. They told jokes, traded banter and made fun of one another without hesitation.
The New Riders have been around, on and off, since 1969, with early ties to the Grateful Dead and the West Coast scene before things splintered. But here they are again, and Friday night they played with good energy. Looking every bit their age and maintaining their hippie look with zest, they sounded as good as they do on their older live recordings.