Photo by Dean Budnick

It’s become very clear to me recently that, with all due respect to Dead & Company or the Bob & Phil duo or whatever Mickey and Billy come up with next, the focus of being a Deadhead is now squarely on the music itself, wherever it’s found (which is seemingly everywhere). That’s certainly the premise of the Skull and Roses Festival, April 6-7-8 at Ventura Fairgrounds, where bands like Golden Gate Wingmen, Stu Allen & Mars Hotel, JGB, Circle Around the Sun, Shred is Dead, Punk is Dead, David Gans, Roosevelt Collier, Cubensis, and lots more will present Dead music in all flavors. The promoter is a Deadhead, the ocean is just on the other side of the bowl, and you’re all invited.

In celebration of that, here’s talks with two of those musicians…

[Editor’s Note: Dennis shares his own story on, where he previously collected accounts from Jeff Chimenti, John Molo and Roosevelt Collier. ]

Neal Casal came to prominence backing Ryan Adams and later Chris Robinson. After blowing minds on the Fare Thee Well videocast soundtrack, he formed Circle Around the Sun. He emails us from Europe.

I was born in New Jersey, but also lived in Georgia, California, and New York State during my early years. I adored music from the time i was a little kid, always had melodies running through my head, and dreamed of bands and records. But i was really shy about it and never asked for an instrument or thought that i could actually play one. But by the time i was 12 my father noticed how obsessed i was with music and bought me a guitar for Christmas and i never looked back. I got completely into it right away and it’s defined my life ever since, really.

The Rolling Stones were my favorite band and i got into everything that they were into. I read their interviews and that led me into blues, country, reggae, and jazz, and gave me the musical foundation I still work from today. I listened to New York FM radio all day and night. That was the golden age of rock radio and that’s where i got my early knowledge of music.

I first encountered Grateful Dead music on those same New York radio stations. There were lots of GD songs in rotation all the time back then. “Truckin’,” “Ripple,” “Shakedown,” “U.S. Blues,” “Friend Of The Devil,” etc. They were songs that you’d hear all the time and they always resonated with me. Jerry’s voice really stood out for some reason. There was a certain pathos in his voice that really stuck with me and made me want to get into their music on a deeper level. Their lyrics were always really interesting, too. As a kid i’d hear songs like Casey Jones and just get lost in the danger and excitement in those stories.

I went to my first Dead show around 1989, i think. I saw them many times at Madison Square Garden, Giants Stadium, Nassau Coliseum, and The Meadowlands. The last time i saw them was in 1994 at Nassau. They played a heart-stopping version of “The Days Between” that still gives me chills me to this day.

I met Justin Kreutzmann in 2012 on the “Move Me Brightly” project (led by Bob Weir celebrating Jerry’s 70th birthday) and we became fast friends. A couple years later he tapped me to score the Bob Weir documentary “The Other One.” We had such a good time on that project that when it came time for the Fare Thee Well shows he asked me if i would be interested in creating music for the set breaks and of course i said yes. I put together a band comprised of Adam MacDougall, Mark Levy, and Dan Horne and we recorded five hours of music in two days. We wrote everything on the spot and hoped for the best. We had no idea how well it would be received and never expected it to be released as an album so it was all a beautiful surprise to us, and something we’re forever thankful for.

It was so satisfying that we had to try it live. Our first show was at Lockn’ in 2016 and it was a really perfect way to introduce this music into a live setting. We weren’t sure if the music would translate from the recordings onto the stage but it ended up going over really well and now we look forward to doing shows whenever we can. It’s become a really important part of my musical life and i hope it continues for a long time to come. We just made a new record and are really excited about releasing it this summer.

I’m definitely a Deadhead, have been for a long time. It’s a way of life, a search for individuality in a mundane world, a quest for inspiration, and a reminder to keep life fun.

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