The David Nelson Band's High Adventure
It's the perfect recipe for a 90's jam band: One shot of Ratdog mixed in with equal parts Kingfish, Cowboy Jazz, Jefferson Starship, and New Riders of the Purple Sage. Which all brews up to a sound as close to the Dead (and that is, the Dead at their best) anyone will hear -- at least in the closing months of this millennium.After five years and three albums -- Limited Edition, Keeper of the Key, and their just released Visions Under The Moon -- the David Nelson Band's lyrical blend of rock, folk, country, and tempered improvisation has garnered an audience that spans two generations and at least two continents. Last year, the DNB brought their High Adventure tour across the Pacific to Hawaii and Japan."We played three shows in Tokyo -- two at On Air East in Shiboya and one at Yukotopia," said Barry Sless, DNB's lead guitarist and pedal steel player. "We were really well-received, and the folks in Japan had the same spirit toward the music as the fans over here."That spirit included a surprisingly strong contingent of Nihon Deadheads, and a pair of Japanese Grateful Dead cover bands that opened for the DNB."They played all Dead music and sang the lyrics in English," Sless said. "They didn't speak any English, and they had a little Japanese inflection on the lyrics, but they were good."I think our music really transcended the cultural barrier."Front man David Nelson got his start in the late 60's in San Francisco, and played guitar on three of the Grateful Dead's early albums -- Aoxomoxoa, American Beauty, and Workingman's Dead. In the early 70's, he hooked up with Jerry Garcia and John Dawson and formed The New Riders of the Purple Sage which featured Nelson's voice on, "Panama Red." In the 80's, Nelson toured with the Jerry Garcia Acoustic Band and later the Good Ol' Boys that included bluegrass legends, Don Reno, Chubby Wise, and Frank Wakefield.In May 1998, the DNB performed at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio and had the kind of impact the Dead did at the other end of the state, thirty years earlier in Athens: When Garcia and company drove their old woody onto the Ohio University campus, their impromptu show blew everyone away and ushered in a new era; by the time the DNB struck the last chord to "Kick In The Head" on that Antioch stage last year, it was like the sixties had sprung back to life.It's not easy to nail down the DNB's musical alchemy. Part of it is about creating rock and roll that's saturated with detailed counterpoint; another is the combination of talent and commitment that delivers performances that are strong, precise, honest. From the get-go, you know these guys really love what they do.But what strikes a listener most about the DNB is how much they stand out from the mundane world of 90's rock and roll. These days, with rock stations across the country playing the same uninspired formats, and concerts showcasing one cliched act after another, Nelson and company are one of the few bands who really know what good rock and roll is all about.Nelson's voice combines the best qualities of Dylan, Jimmy Buffet, and Roger McGuinn. David Laymon -- who's played with Jefferson Starship, New Riders, Kingfish, and the Jerry Garcia Band -- alternately slugs out a defining bottom end on his five string bass and fluid guitaresque lines when the band segues into improvisational trajectories on pieces like "Long Gone Sam" and "The Wheel."Barry Sless's lead guitar is alone worth the price of the ticket -- or any of the band's CD's for that matter. It's a bit unfair to say how much the co-founder of Cowboy Jazz and one-time Kingfisher sounds like Garcia because his playing is so much more than that, especially when he sits down and slides into some virtuoso pedal steel licks. But it's almost impossible not to recognize in his playing the syncopated guitar lilt that distinguishes so much of the Dead's music.Mookie Siegel's keyboard and accordion technique is like the band's musical glue; Siegel, who honed his skills with Kingfish and Ratdog, manages to pull together a style that's both subtle and detailed. On all three albums many of his chords and arpeggios have the ring of Al Kooper's organ and piano on "Highway 61 Revisited."Charlie Crane's drum work is crisp, steady, unimposing. Dressed down in cut-offs and tee-shirt, he makes it all look so easy, even when he leads the band into more intricate rhythmical realms. And Arthur Steinhorn, who played drums with New Riders, Kingfish, Cowboy Jazz, and on all three of DNB's CD's, brings to mind the likes of Grateful Dead percussionists Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann.The DNB is one of those bands that also highlights the best of the best. When Nelson, Sless, Laymon, Siegel, and Crane rollick through tunes like the Stones' "Dead Flowers" or the New Riders' "Lonesome L.A. Cowboy," or Dylan's "Absolutely Sweet Marie," they punch-up those ballads with so much drive and clarity it's like you're hearing those songs for the first time.Sless said that while a lot of people come out to hear the DNB because of Nelson's past -- especially his days with the Dead and New Riders -- there's also a new crop of post-Woodstock fans who know little, if anything, about that chapter in Nelson's life. They just love the music."David [Nelson] was there when that stuff was being born," said Sless, referring to the Haight-Ashbury era. "But most of us are second generation who grew up listening to that music and liking that style -- as well as other styles of music. That's where the [DNB] sound comes from, and there's a definite influence there -- first generation and second generation."From his vantage point, Sless sees lots of young fans gravitating to "Roots Music" or "Jam Bands": groups like the DNB that "stretch out" their songs with a lot of spontaneity. But, says Sless, there's another important component to the DNB: song writing."As a taking off point for the improvisation we have strong, original material -- lyrics that have real content to them. It's a place to start from, and then we take off from there."And when it comes to those inevitable comparisons between the DNB and the Dead, Sless shrugs them off."We do what we do, and whatever people say about us, it's beyond our control. We just play the music that comes natural to us."