by Jim McCoy
KUFALA Recordings (2004)
August 27, 1972, holds a special place in Grateful Dead lore, especially for those who were fortunate enough to actually be in Veneta, Oregon on that day. (This writer would not be born until 8 months later.) Tucked away in rural Oregon about 20 miles from Eugene, tens of thousands gathered for an outdoor concert dubbed the Springfield Creamery Benefit under a sun that brought near-100 degree heat. Although the Dead organization has been reluctant to release any official audio or video of the event due to tuning issues caused by the oppressive heat wreaking havoc on the instruments, KUFALA Recordings has been kind enough to release the set by the opening act, Dead co-conspirators New Riders of the Purple Sage.
New Riders was formed in 1969 after guitarist and vocalist John Dawson invited himself over Jerry Garcia's house upon learning that Garcia had recently taken up the pedal steel guitar. The original line-up consisted of Dawson, fellow lead guitarist and vocalist David Nelson (it is Nelson that actually provides the lead guitar on American Beauty's Box of Rain) and three members of the Grateful Dead themselves- Phil Lesh on bass, Mickey Hart on drums and Garcia playing pedal steel. By 1970, the New Riders were an opening act staple of Grateful Dead shows. After Mickey Hart left the Dead scene temporarily (his father, the Dead's manager, stole funds from the band) and Lesh and Garcia grew tired of playing three full sets each night, the roster that appears on this disc took hold. Spencer Dryden took over behind the drum kit, Dave Torbet played bass and did some vocal duties, and the legendary Buddy Cage played pedal steel in Garcia's stead. (Cage supplied the pedal steel on Dylan's Meet Me in the Morning from Blood on the Tracks.)
Veneta's set starts out rockin' with a version of Truck Drivin' Man that has Cage bouncing up and down his steel in a controlled country-esque fury. Cage's playing is the highlight throughout, with his trademark solo on the late Gene Pitney's Hello Mary Lou blazing like a rocket up his 10-string E9 neck; similarly, his twangy, pronounced double stops bring great life to Groupie and Whatcha Gonna Do. It's not that the other musicians are slackers; in fact, the opposite is true. It's just difficult to not take note of such a unique instrument like a pedal steel in Cage's competent hands. The band in its entirety rocks a near-perfect version of I Don't Need No Doctor (with a nice Nelson wah-wah solo) and a lengthy Willie and the Hand Jive concludes the disc.
The disc's 17 tracks include four tracks of stage announcements. Including this banter was a really nice touch; it really puts the disc into its historical context and gives the listener some insight into the prevailing vibe in rural Oregon that day. The listener is warned not to take the "blue acid with the white stars on it that shaped like a little pyramid" because it will "kill ya." Other announcements speak of lost little girls and 13 year-old runaways, making one wonder if such broadcasts would still be made at a rock festival in today's Amber Alert world.
For those that have not yet been introduced to the fine, unique rock music of New Riders of the Purple Sage, the solid playing and full, crisp studio harmonies of their greatest hits album (with the legendary cover featuring a orangeish tank top worn by a well-endowed woman) may make a better introduction. But for those already familiar with the New Riders - especially fans of Buddy Cage - this recording is an essential. Those Deadheads for which 08/27/72 holds a special place in their collections would also be wise to pick up this disc not just for the sake of having a complete representation of the day in their hundreds of hours of material, but because it is a solid example of live early-seventies rock music in its own right.