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A Band of One's Own: Long a favored guitarist among the Grateful Dead set, David Nelson now stands among the forefront of the post-Dead roots, country and psychedelic scenes.

American Beauty

New Riders of the Purple Sage founder David Nelson still delivers psychedelic-rock with a down-home twang

By Scott Cooper

LET'S GET ONE THING straight: David Nelson is not Ricky Nelson, the '50s pop icon. Nor is he one of the Nelson Twins, sons of the '50s pop icon. David Nelson did cover Ricky Nelson's "Hello, Mary Lou" in the '70s with the New Riders of the Purple Sage, but otherwise he has little in common with Ricky--and even less in common with Ricky's poster-boy sons.

Nelson, who brings his band to Brookdale Lodge Saturday, bears more of a resemblance to the ruffled grace of Jerry Garcia. But that's not all he has in common with the late Grateful Dead guitarist. Nelson was a close friend of Garcia's, and the two played together in various bands dating back to the early '60s.

"I started playing bluegrass in '62," Nelson says. "We had a band with Jerry and [Grateful Dead lyricist to be] Robert Hunter called the Wildwood Boys and the Black Mountain Boys in Palo Alto. We were always interested in traditional forms of American music, like Appalachian music and country blues and jug-band music."

After the demise of the Wildwood Boys, the two formed the New Riders of the Purple Sage with a friend named John Dawson. "Dawson had written some songs and he wanted to try them out on an audience," Nelson recalls. "Jerry wanted to learn pedal-steel guitar, and the three of us went down to pizza parlors and started playing."

The resulting New Riders, with Dawson and Nelson as core members, forged a new sound which brought country-music lovers into the rock fold and, conversely, brought the hippie generation under a cowboy hat. The New Riders became the official opening act for the Dead in the early '70s and thereby became beloved siblings of the Deadhead family. The New Riders would often join the Dead onstage and in the studio; Nelson appears on the Dead's Aoxomoxoa, Workingman's Dead and American Beauty.

As time passed, the New Riders and the Dead veered apart, though Nelson and Garcia remained close friends. Nelson spent musical time with bluegrass mandolin legend Frank Wakefield and later played with Zydeco stalwarts Al Rapone, Allen Fontenot and Rockin' Sidney.

In 1987, Hunter spent Thanksgiving with Garcia, eating a little, picking a lot. "We really had fun playing that old material, so we played a benefit for Bill Graham's poster artist," Nelson recalls. "Bill got real excited about it and came into the back room. He said, 'I gotta take this somewhere,' and Jerry said, 'Take us to Broadway, Bill!' The next thing we know, we had 18 shows at the Lunt-Fontanne [in New York City]."

After that short-lived endeavor, Nelson started writing his own material and began collaborating with Hunter. And so for the first time in his long career, Nelson started the band that bears his name.

Today, in the post-Garcia world, the David Nelson Band is one of the most popular satellites within the gravitational field of the Dead's universe. While audiences get to hear Nelson's witty, twisted but still-traditional songs, they are also treated to incredible musicianship and adventurous improvisation from Nelson's hired hands of 'heads, including pedal-steel standout Barry Sless and Santa Cruz's own, bassist Bill Laymon.

Combine the band's four CDs with pedigrees in bluegrass, psychedelia, country, Zydeco and rock, and there's a wealth of material from which to choose. The Dave Nelson band can always draw from the old New Riders catalog, pull out choice covers of Bob Dylan or Bill Monroe, make up some psychedelia on the spot or play the songs Nelson co-wrote with Hunter. And yes, it can even squeeze in an occasional Dead tune such as "The Wheel," in which Nelson sings the line which aptly sums up his career: "Bound to cover just a little more ground."

The Dave Nelson Band plays Saturday (May 6) at 10pm at the Brookdale Lodge, 11570 Highway 9, Brookdale. Tickets are $10 adv/$12 day of show. (338.7633)

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From the May 3-10, 2000 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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