The New Riders Of The Purple Sage were far more than just a mere offshoot of the Grateful Dead. During the folk surge of the late Sixties, the latter band’s titular leader, Jerry Garcia, initially worked and learned with future NRPS chief songwriter John “Marmaduke” Dawson (”Friend of the Devil” is their most notable collaboration). The fledgling group was further nurtured in a most optimal setting, the prolific creative surge of the aforementioned iconic band at the outset of the Seventies, where studio work including participation in recording American Beauty (Warner Bros., 1979) led to stage experience opening for, then morphing into, the parent ensemble’s own performances: GD members bassist Phil Lesh, drummer Mickey Hart and novice pedal steeler Garcia appeared alongside Dawson and guitarist-vocalist David Nelson before the New Riders coalesced into a tightly-knit quintet. Variations on those early incarnations played plenty of shows, many of which are now available from the Owsley Foundation in the form of this five compact disc box set Bear’s Sonic Journals.
CD’s One & Two – Chapter 1 – August 1, 1969, Bear’s Lair, Berkeley, California (Set 2): Comprised of unreleased live concert recordings from the earliest days of the band (some before it even adopted its name, while Jerry Garcia was still learning the pedal steel), this set features performances from four different venues on nine different nights with bonus cuts on all but one disc. Nearly two-dozen songs appear here never before officially released by the New Riders or the Grateful Dead and they are juxtaposed with several New Riders’ originals— “Last Lonely Eagle” and “Whatcha Gonna Do” among them– that boast the most polished arrangements. And while the potency of the musicianship—not to mention the delight of all present around the various rooms–transcends a superficial fidelity in these earliest recordings from this heretofore largely undocumented period in NRPS evolution; the sound quality does improve by the recordings from Fillmore, however, like all the others original tapes overseen by the legendary Owsley a/k/a Bear, subsequently mastered by Jeffrey Norman (who has been performing similar duties on Grateful Dead archival releases in recent years).
CD Three – Chapter 2 – August 28, 1969, The Family Dog at the Great Highway, San Francisco, California: The 16-page booklet included in this somewhat less than durable box packaging features rare and previously unreleased vintage photographs and liner notes, the most erudite and insight of which are executive producer Hawk’s spirited observations. Noted photographer Bob Minkin fashioned graphics based on a design by Owsley’s offspring (stylized like that of prior titles like The Allman Brothers Fillmore East, February 1970), and, in a further extension of the close-knit community feel of the times, Bobby ‘Ace’ Weir appears on nine cuts within; Garcia’s Grateful Dead comrade never deigns to hog the spotlight, though, instinctively aware this is not his show. And, even if the audio isn’t always clear, its betterment is evident over the course of the five compact discs, in keeping with the increasing clarity and confidence of the performances themselves. The informal, offhanded stage setting includes taking audience requests, but the band goes on to more practiced takes of originals that would appear on the eponymous NRPS debut, such as “Garden of Eden” (an early paean to environmentalism?).
CD Four – Chapter 3 – October 14, 1969, Mandrake’s, Berkeley, California: It’s fair to say the New Riders’ vision was more eclectic than it might’ve seemed on the surface. On these Sonic Journals, their recognition of roots and influences spans “Hello Trouble” from Buck Owens, the progenitor of Bakersfield country to the Rolling Stones’ “Honky Tonk Women,” Nashville cat Joe South’s pop hit “Games People Play” as well as“The Weight” from The Band’s Music From Big Pink. Plus there’s another a cover of the latter group in the form of “Long Black Veil,” a tune also recorded by Johnny Cash and Lefty Frizzell, one of two numbers on which Will Scarlett warbles with harmonica. All such choices had an implicit logic, as does this selection of the Everly Brothers’ “Cathy’s Clown:” despite the absence of the smooth vocal harmonies that eventually evolved to prominence in the NRPS sound, Weir’s singing manifests a certain tongue-in-cheek attitude similar to the Riders’ similarly eclectic brethren, the Flying Burrito Brothers (founded in 1968 by Gram Parsons and the Byrds’ Chris Hillman ).
CD Five – Chapter 4 – June 4, 1970, Fillmore West, San Francisco, California: Having begun as impromptu labor of love, it only made sense a rotating cast of characters were singing and playing under the NRPS banner at the outset. Dead soundman Bob Matthews actually played bass on some of these earliest gigs–the permanent player in that role, future Kingfish bandmember Dave Torbert, was in place by the gig at Bill Graham’s venue–in addition to the aforementioned sit-ins by Weir and Scarlett (who was also performing with the initial two-man incarnation of Hot Tuna around this time). This is, of course, besides drummer Mickey Hart, who though often inaudible in the early going, nevertheless maximizes his opportunity to play simply and straightforwardly, picking and choosing his spots, usually after discussion with the other band members (there’s plenty of stage patter here). Garcia was clearly still finding himself on pedal steel, but relished the prospect of continuing to learn the instrument: here he makes it weep on Dawson’s “Sweet Lovin’ One” and intertwine with David Nelson’s Fender on the sprightly “Louisiana Lady,” among others.