New Riders of the Purple Sage Deliver Smokin’ 1972 Set Via ‘Field Trip’ Remix/Remaster (ALBUM REVIEW)

Field Trip is a long out-of-print 1972 recording of the New Riders of the Purple Sage opening for the Grateful Dead at the legendary Veneta, Oregon creamery benefit concert (documented on Sunshine Daydream (Rhino, 2013). The seventeen cuts proceeding in quick succession over the course of just over an hour’s playing time, ultimately furthering a distinct notion NRPS were far more than just a mere offshoot of that aforementioned iconic band. 

Within this expertly-paced track sequence, the New Riders artfully mix original songs with cover material that speaks directly to their roots and influences. Thus, the forward-thinking ode to environmentalism,“Whatcha Gonna Do,” immediately precedes the vintage country and western of  “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke (And Loud Loud Music)” while “Hello May Lou” echoes the rendition of roughly a decade prior by early country-rock hybridist Rick Nelson. Creedence Clearwater Revival also interpreted this song of Gene Pitney’s on Mardi Gras (Fantasy, 1972) but in hardly so sprightly or tongue-in-cheek a fashion. 

Even apart from that latter tune, bassist Dave Torbert had become particularly prominent in this lineup since his recruitment during the course of recording the Riders’ eponymous debut album. Besides singing the vivid character study-in-song he composed, “Groupie,” his vocal plus gritty instrumental work on Motown composing team Ashford & Simpson’s “I Don’t Need No Doctor,” presages the similarly earthy strains with which NRPS conclude on such a highly rhythmic note via “Willie & The Hand Jive;” thanks in large measure to the light but an insistent touch of former Jefferson Airplane drummer Spencer Dryden, such r&b-oriented selections mark exactly how stark is the contrast in style with the Bakersfield country ethos, espoused by both it progenitor Buck Owens and his descendant Dwight Yoakam, that forms the basis for the New Riders’ own “Linda” and “Louisiana Lady.”

Field Trip derives its pristine audio from the 16-track master reels used by Betty Cantor and Bob Matthews and subsequently exhumed from the NRPS archive. And even if the sound is a bit antiseptic, as mixed and mastered by Stephen Barncard (who engineered American Beauty (Warner Bros, 1970). it nevertheless reveals the well-oiled precision of the quintet’s playing and singing after some respectable time on tour (including plenty of roadwork with the Grateful Dead). The bell-like clarity of Keith Godchaux’ piano highlights certain points such as “Truck Drivin’ Man,” but it’s the musicianship of the core five that impresses the most: for instance, Buddy Cage’s pedal steel, whether clean or distorted, curls and swirls fluently around the quick picking of David Nelson on his Fender electric guitar.

New Riders historian Rob Bleetstein skillfully produced this title for the vaunted Omnivore Recordings and besides curating its eye-popping artwork, he was sufficiently savvy to include notes from Ken Babbs of Ken Kesey’s legendary Merry Pranksters. Juxtaposed with those discerning observations in the eight-page booklet are photos from this mythic event that fully corroborate the delightfully loopy between-song repartee of chief songwriter/lead vocalist John ‘Marmaduke’ Dawson as well as the three-stage announcements by the author of the liner prose: Babbs’ regaling the sun-baked crowd with tales of lost children and medication of various kinds are a mix of wonderment, glee and responsible maturity that would hardly reverberate so clearly if these intervals didn’t also accurately reflect the music on Field Trip.

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