Friday, November 25, 2011

NRPS with Keith and Donna Godchaux, 1973

An ad in the Feb 22 '73 Village Voice, assuring that 'Special Friends' would join the New Riders
Keith Godchaux was a brilliant piano player for most of his time with the Grateful Dead and the Jerry Garcia Band, but by all accounts he was very shy. Indeed, without his wife he would never have been in the Grateful Dead at all. Keith could be a brilliant improviser, and one unfortunate byproduct of his shyness was the fact that he played very rarely with anyone outside the Grateful Dead or Jerry Garcia, so we rarely heard what he could add to other bands. One of the few markers of Keith's versatility was several occasions where he sat in with the New Riders of The Purple Sage in the Spring of 1973. Keith's appearances with the New Riders were too frequent to be mere coincidence, but have never really been discussed anywhere, to my knowledge. This post will attempt to rectify that by making a list of Keith's performances with the New Riders and attempting to draw some conclusions about his appearances.

When Keith Godchaux joined the Grateful Dead for their first tour in Fall 1971, the New Riders of The Purple Sage opened almost every show. However, the New Riders were in a state of transition, replacing Jerry Garcia on pedal steel guitar with Buddy Cage. It would not seem like the time to let a piano player sit in while getting used to a new member. In any case, I believe the 1971 tour to be the only one where Keith toured without Donna, and if Keith was as shy as he was reputed to be, he would not have been the sort to go up to the New Riders, whom he had (relatively speaking) just met, and say "hey, I'd love to sit in with you some time." The Dead and the New Riders continued to play together periodically throughout 1972, so by the end of the year, Keith would have had ample opportunity to hear all their material.

Donna Godchaux had a more forthright personality. On the New Riders' third album, Gypsy Cowboy, recorded in mid-1972, she sang harmony vocals on a few songs. In fact, Donna was an obvious choice, given that she was an experienced Mussel Shoals session singer (she sang on Elvis Presley's "Suspicious Minds" and the first Boz Scaggs album, for example), and she was a friend of the band. More importantly, however, the sociable Donna would surely have made clear to the Riders that she would be delighted to sing on their records, and the band was all the better for it.

By late 1972, the New Riders of The Purple Sage were at an interesting crossroads. I myself was a huge New Riders fan, and as a naive suburban High School student who knew almost nothing about country music, the Riders seemed somewhat more unique than they actually were. I have to think, however, that my naivete was duplicated in suburbs all over the country, and there was an opportunity for country rock bands to capture fans who could appreciate country music as long as it had a long-haired sensibility not rooted in Nashville. On record, the New Riders sounded great, as Buddy Cage and David Nelson layered as many guitars as needed to get a rich sound. As the New Riders had gotten more popular, however, and played larger and larger venues, the fact was they had started to sound kind of tinny. In fact, there were significant piano contributions on both their second and third albums, respectively (Nicky Hopkins and, oddly, Jerry Garcia on Powerglide and Mark Naftalin on Gypsy Cowboy), so the Riders were clearly aware of what a grand piano added to their sound.

John Dawson had basically been a folksinger prior to forming the New Riders, and in the early days of the band his lack of experience in a group really showed. However, as the New Riders continued to tour, Dawson became a more productive part of the group, but he was always more of a singer than a guitar player. By late 1972, Dawson could hold down his rhythm guitar parts all right, but he wasn't any kind of jammer. Since the New Riders consciously aspired to a version of the Bakersfield sound, Dave Torbert and Spencer Dryden tended to a spare sound that was in distinct contrast to the likes of Phil Lesh and Bill Kreutzmann. As a result, in a big place, when the band was rocking out on a solo, the New Riders sounded a bit thin with just Cage and Nelson spreading their wings. Onstage at least, a piano seemed like a logical addition, particularly if the guy could really honky tonk.

A partial scan of a 1974 bootleg lp of the March 18 '73 NRPS Felt Forum show
March 18, 1973, Felt Forum, New York, NY
The New Riders had a high profile show in Manhattan at the Felt Forum, which was housed in Madison Square Garden. The show was broadcast on WNEW-fm, New York's biggest rock radio station, and a Village Voice advertisement (up top) broadly hinted that the Dead would be sitting in. In fact, the entire broadcast was tremendous. The most memorable part today was a brief acoustic set in which Garcia (on banjo) and Weir led the Riders through a series of gospel-style bluegrass numbers, including "Swing Low Sweet Chariot." However, the entire set is a gem, featuring the classic New Riders with Dave Torbert, in their prime, including periodic guest appearances by Donna Godchaux, Bob Weir, Jerry Garcia (on electric guitar) and Ramblin' Jack Elliott (who opened the show). Nonetheless, the lasting impression for me was that Keith Godchaux sat in on grand piano for almost every song, and the New Riders sound is infinitely richer and more powerful with Keith's presence.

The Grateful Dead were between shows at the Nassau Coliseum, and their "surprise appearance" was clearly planned. That is particularly true with respect to Keith, since grand pianos have to be rented, delivered and tuned, and aren't simply hanging around a venue waiting to be played. Since Keith sat in on a grand, it wasn't a casual event. Whoever suggested that Keith sit in with the Riders, however, clearly knew what the band needed. Since the show was broadcast on WNEW, some of it ended up getting bootlegged on a white-label record, and I purchased it in about 1974. I was absolutely amazed at how great the New Riders sounded with Keith, and I couldn't understand why they didn't either use him as often as possible or get their own piano player.

A ticket for the Apr 4 '73 NRPS show at Clark U
April 4, 1973 Atwood Hall, Clark University, Worcester, MA (early and late shows)
It turns out I wasn't the only person who thought Keith sounded great with the New Riders. The Grateful Dead ended a leg of their tour on April 2, 1973, playing with the Riders at Boston Garden. Although the Dead and their crew must have gone home, Keith and Donna seem to have stuck with the Riders. When the New Riders headlined at Clark University, Keith played piano for the whole show. On top of that, not only did Donna provide harmonies on "She's No Angel" (early show) and "Long Black Veil" (late), but for both shows she took a solo turn, singing lead on Loretta Lynn's "You Ain't Woman Enough To Take My Man."

If Donna took a lead vocal, this wasn't no casual sit-in, this was a plan. Furthermore, since Keith played great piano, that too was not casual, since the piano had to be rented, delivered and tuned. Interestingly enough, the New Riders released highlights of the Clark U shows on an archival cd. To my ears, much as I love the sound of Keith with the Riders, the band sounds kind of ragged to me. From that point of view, I think releasing the Felt Forum show would have been better, but of course I already had that.

April 7, 1973 McGonigle Hall, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA (early and late)
Apparently, Keith and Donna also played at another New Riders show, at Temple University a few days later. The New Riders site is good as far as it goes, but I think there is a strong likelihood that Keith and Donna also played other dates as well (such as an unknown venue in Philadelphia on April 6 and Queens College in Flushing on April 9). The site lists Keith as playing electric piano on both early and late shows at Temple, and Donna as singing backups on a few numbers as well as singing lead on "You Ain't Woman Enough." I have a feeling that Keith and Donna played with the New Riders for the entire April leg of the tour, but I am unable to confirm any of that, or even be certain of all the dates.

May 26, 1973 Kezar Stadium, San Francisco, CA
The New Riders of The Purple Sage opened for the Grateful Dead and Waylon Jennings at Bill Graham's inaugural Day On The Green. According to one internet commentator, Keith sat in on piano. I have nothing else to go on, but it seems logical. Given that he had played with the Riders the month before, and that his piano was there, it seems logical that he would sit in. I wonder if Keith had sat in the week before at Santa Barbara (May 20)?

Update: a Commenter reports that Keith played on March 30 and 31 in Boston, but did not play in Santa Barbara (May 20) or Kezar (May 26). I suspect we have yet more Keith sightings with the Riders yet to be found in the March/April time frame.

Was There A Plan?
I don't think there was anything accidental about Keith sitting in with the New Riders, but I don't know how calculated it was. It is Keith's shyness that makes me certain that there had to be a concerted effort to get him to sit in. The interesting part to me would be how much of Keith's presence could be attributed to musical fun and how much might be attributed to other plans. In mid-1973, the Dead and the New Riders still shared management (through Jon McIntire) and a booking agency (through Sam Cutler). At the very least, there may have been a general awareness that the New Riders sounded better on stage with Keith on piano, particularly in a big place.

More interesting, however, would be the idea that since the New Riders had been created with some members of the Grateful Dead, perhaps they would have a higher profile if some other members continued to be adjuncts to the New Riders. Keith and Donna weren't Jerry Garcia and Mickey Hart, but they were members of the Dead and they added a lot to the New Riders on stage. Keep in mind also that if Keith and Donna had toured with some regularity with the New Riders, they would have gotten paid. I don't know how much of course, but other than Garcia and perhaps Weir, the members of the Dead were not well-off, and if Keith and Donna could have made a little money touring periodically with the New Riders, they might have appreciated it. Certainly the New Riders would have sounded better for it.

What Happened?
The history of the New Riders Of The Purple Sage is not that well documented, particularly after Jerry Garcia left the band. However, I think in late 1973 the New Riders shifted over to new management, although I am unable to define an exact timeline. Their new manager was Joe Kerr, who had been a college friend of George "Commander Cody" Frayne. Kerr was the manager of Commander Cody as well, and by 1974 Kerr was managing both groups. From mid-1973 onwards, Commander Cody and the New Riders played a lot of double bills together, particularly on the East Coast.

Cody went way back with the Riders--in fact he had played on their debut album (NRPS). When the Riders and the Airmen were billed together, often Cody sat in for the end of the show. The New Riders site identifies a few instances, but I think it was a pretty regular occurrence. The band would just leave the piano on stage, and Cody could join them at the appropriate points. I was fortunate enough to see Cody and the New Riders open for the Grateful Dead (at the Oakland Coliseum Stadium on June 8, 1974), and Cody sat in with the New Riders for a few numbers and sounded great. If there had been a plan afoot to have a regular guest piano player with the New Riders, the regular bookings with Commander Cody seemed to have filled that bill.

If there was ever a plan to have an ongoing relationship between Keith and Donna Godchaux and the New Riders of The Purple Sage, it appears that the change in New Riders management diverted them in another direction. It's really too bad, since the New Riders needed an booster shot after Dave Torbert left at the end of 1973, and Keith and Donna would have given them a different direction. It's impossible to say what might have been planned, or what might have happened. However, I cannot help but think that there are a number of New Riders dates in the Spring of 1973 where Keith and Donna were part of the band, and I hope to be able to pursue this in the Comments.

On May 23 and 24, 1975, the New Riders of The Purple Sage headlined at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco, and the newly-formed Keith and Donna Band opened the show. It would be very interesting to know if Keith or Donna sat in for either show. The NRPS set has a setlist for the first night (May 23), which mentions nothing about either of them, although it does namecheck old friend Darlene DiDomenico joining in for "Whiskey," which suggests that there is a tape for that night at least. Given the divergent paths of the Dead and the New Riders by 1975, I wouldn't draw any specific conclusions from Keith's presence or absence, but it would still be interesting to know.


  1. What a fascinating little nugget you have presented to us. I was only aware of the Felt Forum thing, but you point to some tantalizing possibilities. I am sure Nelson would have some recollections/thoughts, if anyone had the chance to ask him.

  2. It only took about 30 years for me to notice this. After Garcia left the Riders, the band were still linked by management and booking agency through about the end of '73. I think there's a lot of analysis yet to be done on the business and musical relationships between the bands during that period.

    Once the Riders change management and Dave Torbert leaves, they become considerably less interesting, and also much more remote from the Dead.

  3. I hadn't known that Keith kept playing with the New Riders in April 1973...very interesting! The idea must have come up when the Riders were opening several shows for the Dead in winter 1973.
    Though it must have been planned, it seems to have been short-lived - perhaps because Commander Cody was able to join the New Riders on piano sometimes from mid-1973.
    It's also possible that Keith & the Riders didn't feel that they were working out together, perhaps for non-musical reasons. (Just musically speaking, it was probably a breeze for Keith. But he and Donna did become known as terrors on tour, though that was a few years later...)

  4. LIA, do you know which shows NRPS opened for the Dead in Winter '73? I ask because we might look into Keith sitting in on some of those shows as well. There may be more Keith-Donna-NRPS shows than we realized.

  5. I know of the following for sure, from published reviews, etc.

    UIUC 2/21/73, presumably also 2/22/73
    SLC 2/28/73
    3/19/73 Nassau
    4/2/73 Boston

  6. The NRPS site shows them opening for the Dead on 2/19, 2/21, 2/22, 2/28, 3/19, 3/30, 3/31, and 4/2. I think most of those are confirmed, but at any rate, it was a bunch of shows!
    Interestingly, their setlists page doesn't list Keith playing on any of those (or for that matter, even the 3/18 Felt Forum show), so I'd call that an unknown unless someone's heard tapes.

  7. One of the things I have figured out is that NRPS history is fairly underdocumented. There aren't that many tapes, and there aren't that many eyewitness accounts of NRPS shows from that period (true of most groups except the Dead and a few other major groups). I agree with your proposition that Keith and/or the Riders seem to have gotten the idea for him to sit in from the number of shows they opened. However, if Keith sat in on 3/18, perhaps he sat in at least a few times after that when the Riders opened.

  8. And the NRPS site itself is a mixed bag. No knock on Rob Bleetstein, he is working with what he has. Where they are reporting on tapes, things are really informative. But, to a great extent, the official NRPS history has just tended to import a lot of stuff from GD histories, a lot of which is based on assumptions, guesses, etc.

  9. Keith played the last half of the NRPS set on 3/30 and a few songs on 3/31/73. He did not play on either 5/20 or 5/26/73.

  10. Part of the 4/2/73 NRPS set is now circulating from an audience tape:

    Lossless Legs torrent of NRPS 4/2/73 Jim Cooper aud

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