New Riders and Anders Osborne come in from the fringe

by Ryan Snyder

The Eastern Music Festival’s Fringe Series experienced a quiet but potent opening over the weekend with two performances that, while not quite up to expectations attendance-wise, were more than satisfying musically. Recently reformed San Francisco psychedelic pioneers New Riders of the Purple Sage kicked off the contemporary element of EMF’s programming on Thursday night, while little-known but widely-heard songwriter and Delta rocker Anders Osborne headlined in the weekend’s Friday night slot. Though the provisional seating in the Empire Ballroom was barely half-filled for NRPS and only slightly more than that for the Friday night Osborne set, the audiences for both were wildly receptive of the music. The crowds both night were characteristically older than most club show audiences, but the fact that many of the same faces were in attendance from one night to the next was a testament to the esteem that many in the community hold for the series.

With tapestries of Chinese dragons adorning the wall behind him, a dreadlocked 60-year old sat phlegmatically slumped over on an amp toward the corner of the stage, his plastic lanyard giving him the appear- ance of a road-weary gear tech ready to get back on the bus. His demeanor was certainly in line with the burnt-out hippie vibe that I half-expected the New Riders to embody, par- ticularly after admiring the disembodied voice of New Riders pedal steel wizard Buddy Cage during his somewhat brief, but memo- rable run on Sirius/XM’s (then just Sirius) Jam_ON channel from afar. Given the hours invested in wading through the channel’s generally crappy rotay of Phish and DMB for the occasional nugget from the heart that Cage dropped, I was keen on giving a face to the mellifluent, occasionally glib DJ who inexplicably vanished from satellite after a bluntly outspoken week during the 2008 elec- tions. At the same time David Nelson and his new New Riders took the stage, the scraggly- haired man who looked more like a crumpled roadie sat up and took his place behind the pedal steel. While I was secretly expecting the beloved New Riders to also sound like a collection of burnt-out hippies, assumption was badly amiss. While it certainly appears that the road has taken its toll on Cage and Nelson, they still sound like the same men whose jammed- up, rollicky twang became the framework for a great many American country rockers. Considering their marked association with the Grateful Dead — though the dearth of Dead material was disappointing consider- ing it was the eve of 15 years since their last show — NRPS’s set list philosophy bears much in common. They fused all corners of classic Americana into their own imitable sound, as Cage asked the stoic crowd if they were a-sittin’ or a-dancin’ crowd just before they opened with the Bill Monroe classic “Rocky Road Blues, which they followed with their classic “Lonesome LA Cowboy.” All of the standards — “Panama Red” and “Portland Woman” in particular awoke the dancing feet of a few — made the show, and though they peppered their set with new mate- rial from their new disc Where I Come From, it all sounded just as vintage as it did on the old recordings.

A little less groovy and a little more abrasive, Osborne’s Friday night show was nonetheless an exercise in skull-rattling, bluesy experimentalism. Osborne is more noted for his extensive popular songwriting credits, but he’s slowly gaining recognition for his deft playing. Though his originals often include similarly swampy lead guitar phrasings, it’s in his solos where his genius lies. Opener “Charlie Parker” introduced the crowd to his chameleonic range, with its blistering synthesis of grinding, funk-infused tone, before applying completely different principles to his Hendrixian solo on “Stoned, Drunk, and Naked.” He used the space between himself and his rig to intensify the distortion created by his hammer-ons, though at times it appeared as if the sound sprung directly from his striking beard as his lower jaw quivered and shook in harmony with his fingers. Fifteen-year-old local Sam Fribush joined Osborne’s trio for the latter half of their set, and his contributions were surprisingly emergent above the din created by Osborne’s punishing sound levels. Fribush never once looked intimidated to be among such accomplished, older players, with his reserved, funky style reminiscent of cool key men like Nicky Hopkins.

Sure, the attendance was a little on the smallish side for both shows and Osborne seemed intent on exploding the eardrums of the first 10 rows, but it was still a great “official” opening for EMFfringe. The tasteful pairing heralded even greater music to come in the following weeks, and the city owes it to themselves to come out in support.