Wednesday, March 10, 2010

March 10: New Riders Of The Purple Sage, "Panama Red"

Artist: New Riders Of The Purple Sage
Song: "Panama Red"
Album: The Adventures Of Panama Red
Year: 1973

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In an overwhelming majority of cases, when the "big" artist leaves a side project, the band in question ceases to exist, or survives for a small time, based on the hype of the departed musician.  This is quite understandable, as in most cases, it was the creativity and name recognition of this artist that was the key to the bands' success.  Yet over the years, there have been a very small, elite grouping of bands that have not only survived the departure of their musical core, but in some cases, found even greater success in their wake.  Case in point: legendary folk-rock-country band, New Riders Of The Purple Sage (NRPS).  A band that was originally a spin-off of The Grateful Dead, with Mickey Hart, Phil Lesh, and Jerry Garcia all part of the first lineup, it was not until this trio stepped away that the group found their biggest commercial success.  Making their best music in the drug-fueled years from the beginning of the psychedelic movement to the emergence of disco, NRPS brilliantly blended together a number of different sounds, and though the music they create is certainly "dated," it is by no means anything short of spectacular.  The groups' forth album, and their first without Garcia & Co. is one of their finest, and even with all eleven tracks clocking in at under a half hour, the ebb and flow of the record is truly exceptional.  Filled with subtle and not-so-subtle lyrics, there are few songs that better represent a time in history than New Riders Of The Purple Sage's 1973 classic, "Panama Red."

From the moment the song kicks off, it is a full-tilt country rocker, yet it retains a wonderuflly "homey" feel, which combines for both a perfect mood, as well as an ideal way to start a record.  The biggest difference in this lineup of NRPS is pedal-steel guitarist Buddy Cage, who was in essence the replacement for Jerry Garcia.  Having met when he was a part of Great Speckled Bird whilst playing on The Festival Express tour in 1970, Cage instantly melded perfectly with his new band.  Additional guitars from both David Nelson and John Dawson creates a sensational wall of sound, and it is clear throughout the track that each of the players are absolutely loving the song.  The "twang" that runs throughout the guitar progressions is absolutely country-perfect, yet the heavy injection of the rock and folk styles keep the song in a grey area insofar as genre is concerned.  The simple drumming of former Jefferson Airplane member, Spencer Dryden is absolutely perfect for the track, and his presence further solidifies the San Francisco musical connection.  Rounding out the band is bassist, Dave Torbert, who also spent many years as part of The Grateful Dead.  In many ways, the overall sound of the "new" lineup is perfectly summed on on "Panama Red," as the almost bluegrass-folk feel that they present is unlike anything else of the era.  Furthering this idea, the album itself was commercially the groups' most successful effort, and it is also a sound they would never again perfect in this manner. 

Along with the wonderfully high energy country feel, the vocals are equally fantastic and help to push the song into musical perfection.  The voice of John Dawson, as well as the consistent group harmonies bring a soft feel and one can easily picture the song being sung around a campfire as easily as at a live performance.  Within his voice, there is also a sly, almost "knowing" grin, and much like the guitar work, it overflows with the clear sense that the group is having a wonderful time recording the song.  However, the actual writer of "Panama Red," Peter Rowen, is nowhere to be found on the album, aside from in the liner notes.  It was in fact Rowen who wrote most of NRPS' biggest hits, and there is little question that "Panama Red" remains one of his finest lyrics ever.  Though the music is a very straightforward affair, and the vocals are a perfect match, it is within these lyrics of "Panama Red" that one can find many meanings.  On the surface, "Panama Red" sounds as if it is simply a song about an outlaw who tears through town, woo's the women, robs you, and leaves; yet there is far more to be interpreted if one thinks a bit deeper.  Of all of the cities in the world, few have earned the drug-fueled reputation quite like that of San Francisco.  In large part due to groups like The Grateful Dead and others, it remains the "Mecca" of the psychedelic community.  It is taking this into consideration where one can easily read the lyrics of "Panama Red" as a drug reference, and it is further reinforced by the "...then he'll rob your head.." sentiment that runs throughout the song.  Truth be told, there was a popular strain of marijuana in San Francisco at the time that was known by the name, "Panama Red," and one simply cannot deny the connection.  Regardless of the interpretation, the song remains an absolutely classic, and one of the most uniquely enjoyable songs of all time.

The early 1970's were one of the finest eras of musical experimentation, and it produced some of the most exciting hybids of musical styles.  Having gained notoriety due to the presence of members of The Gradeful Dead, the combined country-folk-rock sound of New Riders Of The Purple Sage remains wonderfully unique more than four decades after they first recorded.  Finding themselves without any of these "famous" members, the group surely felt an increased freedom to explore new sounds, and the resulting effort is eprfectly encapsulated in the song, "Panama Red."  With its wonderfulyl catchy bluegrass-folk sound, every musical progression is fantastic, and the overall feel of the song is like nothing else in music history.  Similarly, the vocals, both solo and harmony, capture the essence of the country style of music, and in many ways, this is the most perfect "anti-cowboy" cowboy-type song.  The fact that the group was able to not only perform such amazing music after losing the core of their group, as well as find commercial success is a testament to their abilities, and this is further reinforced by the fact that the group continues to perform to this day.  Bridging the gap between the rock-based hippie crowd and the bluegrass/country scene, there is truly no other record that so perfectly walks this line, and it is one of the reasons that the group remains so well respected all these years later.  Though New Riders Of The Purple Sage had a handful of other hits that followed, there is simply nothing else that can compare to the classic, "Panama Red.

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