Panama Dead, New Riders Tribute Band, To Debut in Tuckerton

Aug 08, 2018

The convoluted web of Grateful Dead offshoot bands is about to stretch its silken threads into Tuckerton, Aug. 18 at the Lizzie Rose Music Room. The new Grateful Dead-inspired group set to debut? Panama Dead, a New Riders of the Purple Sage tribute band led by Ronnie Penque of Barnegat, the New Riders’ bassist. For those of us unfamiliar with New Riders and its relation to the Grateful Dead, sit back, relax and enjoy a brief, abridged synopsis.

Jerry Garcia, front man of the Grateful Dead, started New Riders of the Purple Sage in 1969, around four years after founding Grateful Dead. The New Riders side project belonged to the country rock genre, showcased the pedal steel guitar and included Grateful Dead band members Mickey Hart and Phil Lesh. The band split in 1997 and was revived in 2005, with original New Riders David Nelson and Buddy Cage, along with newest additions Michael Falzarano, Johnny Markowski and New Jersey-bred Penque.

Penque’s musical career, like Garcia’s, is a long and winding one. A Bergen County native, he was just 13 years old when he started playing the bass guitar. He was raised in a musical family, and his father, an accomplished musician, gifted him his priceless 1957 Fender Precision bass guitar – with one condition, of course.

“He said, ‘This is yours to play until the day you stop playing, then you’ve got to give it back to me.’ He thought I might be going through a fad. He passed away about 15 years ago, and I never gave it back because I never stopped playing,” said Penque.

An avid Grateful Dead fan at 15 years old, Penque ventured off and founded Ripple, a renowned Grateful Dead cover band that frequented The Gateway’s stage in Ship Bottom. “We would pack that place in the ’90s.”

Among Penque’s impressive, extensive musical credentials are spots in the Jerry Garcia Band, Stir Fry, the Ronnie Penque Band, and then finally, New Riders.

“In 2005, we reformed the New Riders of the Purple Sage with the last two surviving members, Buddy Cage and Dave Nelson, who was Jerry Garcia’s best friend,” said Penque.

Meeting his childhood heroes was a surreal experience for him. “It was a dream come true, really. It’s like the stuff you see in the movies. A kid loves his favorite band, next thing you know you’re in it. I was constantly pinching myself, like I can’t believe I’m doing this.”

He toured with the New Riders up until 2016, when both Nelson and Cage were diagnosed with cancer and the group temporarily disbanded. “We’re all kind of waiting around to get going again, but it’s not looking like it might happen anytime soon. So we all went off, and we’re doing different projects.”

Thus came Panama Dead, a tribute to the New Riders. “What we’re doing is we’re going after that classic sound from back in the ’70s and the ’60s,” said Penque, who will be the lead vocalist and bassist for the group. The “classic sound” he refers to includes the pedal steel guitar, three-part harmonies and chicken-picking guitar parts. The tribute band, named cleverly for the New Riders’ “Panama Red” song, will resurrect the sound, stylings and techniques of the early New Riders.

The lineup is an impressive one: Mike Flynn on lead guitar and vocals, Jeff Pearlman on keyboards and vocals, Kevin Johnson on drums and Wayne Wilson on pedal steel guitar. Filled with masterful musicians who were driven to their crafts by a common passion for the Grateful Dead, the musical act promises to be a delightful blast from the past and treat for devoted Deadheads.

Penque said he looks forward to the premiere at the Lizzie Rose Music Room Aug. 18. “It’s a very small venue. It’s a great place to see a show because you know the band’s right there. It’s like playing in someone’s living room almost.

“I’ve been on the road for almost 20 years touring, and I’m liking being in the home area now and staying local. We’ll probably keep it close to home for the beginning, and we’ll see where it goes,” said Penque.

For more information about Ronnie Penque and Panama Dead, visit panamadead.com. For details regarding the event, visit lizzierosemusic.com.

— Sarah Hodgson

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