Photo credit: Dean Budnick
Neal Casal was the ultimate sideman to the stars, an incredibly tasteful guitarist who helped usher the likes of Chris Robinson, Ryan Adams and Phil Lesh into unchartered territory without ever overshadowing those marquee names. And, perhaps because, in his own words, he was “not rock-star-guitar-player material,” Casal’s August 26 suicide just days after playing with his own Circles Around the Sun and Bob Weir and Oteil Burbridge feels not only tragic and heartbreaking, but also incredibly real.
As the wave of social media posts and musical tributes that followed his death clearly show, the New Jersey-bred guitarist—who spent most of his career in New York and Los Angeles—also touched an incredibly range of performers during his thirty-year run. After cutting his teeth in the Southern-rock act Blackfoot and focusing on singer/songwriter solo work for much of the 1990s, Casal went on to tour with alt-country act Beachwood Sparks for and serve key posts in The Chris Robinson Brotherhood, Adams’ Cardinals and various incarnations of Lesh’s Friends around Terrapin Crossroads. He also helped form the rock band Hazy Malaze, American trad-rock jamband supergroup Hard Working Americans, the California roots outfit The Skiffle Players, and his own Circles Around the Sun, which grew out of his house music compositions for Fare Thee Well. An active studio player, he also helped blur the line between indie, jam, folk, country, psych, gospel, Americana and funk, serving as an unheralded godfather of the indie-jam movement and helping introduce a new generation to the Grateful Dead’s cosmic sounds. (Robert Randolph, who worked with Casal early on, credits the guitarist with introducing him to the Allman Brothers and The Rolling Stones.)
In 2016, during an incredibly fertile period with CRB that produced Anyway You Love, We Know How You Feel and If You Lived Here You Would Be Home by Now, Casal spoke with Relix and Jambands.com about his creative partnership with Robinson, his roots in the Dead’s world and his plans for a then nascent CATS. The complete interview, for the first time, is now available here.
You’ve grown into one of Chris Robinson’s closest creative partners in recent years, and you have a long history playing music together, dating back to your time with Beachwood Sparks. When did you first meet?
I met Chris in the early ‘90s—he would never remember this, but there was a bar in New York where we both used to hang out called 3 of Cups. We were mutual friends with the owner, Santo, though we were in different circles back then. But I would see Chris quite a bit in 3 of Cups. We’re talking 1993-1994 when The Black Crowes were scaling the heights and I met him and had a short conversation about Gram Parsons once.
I had always been a Black Crowes fan. Their early records meant a whole lot to me. Chris’ prioritizing of good music started back then, and the guy always had his head pointed in the right direction. I was listening even all the way back then, because he would always talk about the records that he loved and inspired him. Those who read his words, if they hadn’t heard those albums already, they would go out and buy them. That’s what musicians are supposed to do. That’s a good quarter of their job—to not only make their own music but also tell the world about what they’re listening to, because musicians are always into deeper stuff than you’re going to get at the purely commercial level. Chris was always great at pointing the way to music that you may not have already heard.
But I met Chris officially in 2001, when Beachwood Sparks opened up a part of the Lions tour for the Crowes. We got friendly and made the connection about our mutual friend in New York, then stayed in touch over the years. I would run into him in New York and LA—I ran into him at one of Jonathan Wilson’s jams in Lowell Canyon around 2007. Then, a few more years went by and he called me with the idea to start the CRB, and I jumped right on board. The chance to work with him was something that I didn’t have to think about. We got straight to work. He and I started writing songs before we even played our first show. Chris was aware that I had made many solo records and I was a songwriter as well, and one of his main ideas was for me to help him and see if we could co-write and be a songwriting team of sorts. He invited me over to his house in Topanga, we had our first meeting and it went well. He just gambled on me to see if it would work. You can think about something for forever but eventually you just have to roll your dice, and he put his bet down on me and it worked out because we started writing songs right away. Adam [MacDougall] was the first member of the group because they had talked about starting the band while they were part of the Crowes. I didn’t know Adam, but we became fast friends because we share so many of the same musical values and are on the same page about almost everything, so that worked out. We put the band together and got into a van and did residencies around California for two months.
Again, that was an experiment to see if this thing had any legs and staying power. There was one night in Santa Barbara—we were playing this little club called The Soho and the band caught fire and the audience felt that. We looked at them, they looked at us and everybody in the room knew that there was going to be a future in this. As a band, we blew ourselves up in front of people. We didn’t make a record first—we played shows first—and we played shows for almost a year before we made a record. Our early audiences, particularly in California, felt our growing pains for a few months, and those were the people that gave us the idea that this was going to work. At least for me, there was a defining moment where our young band turned the corner and we all knew was that this was something we could take on the road, make records with and have a future with. That’s how it went. We wasted no time in the beginning. We got to know each other as we went. The work came first, really, but there have always been a lot of laughs in this band. That’s the other pre-requisite for being anywhere near the CRB: You better have a strong sense of humor or you’re not going to last long with us.
Did Chris make a decision early on that he wasn’t going to play his Black Crowes material with you guys or his solo material and instead focus on new songs and classic covers.
The idea of playing Black Crowes hits was never on the table—not for a second. The idea right from day one was to create a new band with new original songs and form an entirely different idea that would not be dependent on The Black Crowes’ history, songbook or fans. Any of Chris’ fans were invited along for the ride, but he wasn’t necessarily going after them. There was a stipulation for the band that a club couldn’t advertise Chris Robinson of The Black Crowes. That name has never been on any part of advertising; it’s a part of the story that we talk about or he talks about in press or whatever, but it’s not an advertising tool and never was.
CRB has always had more of a Grateful Dead ethos than the Crowes, though some of their latter-day albums hinted at that direction.
Honestly, if the idea for the band was to be a satellite of The Black Crowes, then I wouldn’t have been interested, personally. I love The Black Crowes, don’t get me wrong. I’ve been a fan since day one, 1990, and I’ve seen many of their shows, but I’m not interested in playing heavier rock music like that. Their acoustic side or their country side, that I’m into, but I’m not rock-star-guitar-player material; that’s just not my stance. To pursue a more Grateful Dead–inspired thing was much more my taste, especially at this time in my life. It all worked out. Not just the Grateful Dead, but also psychedelic music in general and folk music and, we even explored jazz influences—not that we can really play jazz, but just as a mindset and an openness within the music where it’s not all this heavy, guitar-driven music. Guitars don’t necessarily fill up all the spaces in the music—there’s room for all of Adam’s keyboard work, which opens up horizons of possibilities. It’s just a different music that’s coming from a different place. That idea has been on the table since day one, and that’s what attracted me about the offer to join the group.
You all took a leap of faith, jumping in a van and playing small clubs for months at a time. Did that experience make you reevaluate your career priorities in any way?
It personally wasn’t really a huge step back. I hadn’t been in very big bands for long. The most successful group I had been in was Ryan Adams & The Cardinals, and that was an incredible ride where we were playing bigger venues and traveling in style. But as far as riding in vans, believe me, I’ve done a lot more of that in my career than I have the former, so it wasn’t that shocking for me to do it.
On some level, for me, music is all the same no matter where you are. You can have your greatest or worst night in the shittiest bar or in the most successful venue in the planet, and I think sometimes the bigger shows can be a lot more isolating and sterile and not nearly as fun as the smaller ones. Don’t get me wrong—spending the rest of my career riding around in a van is not my best idea, and I’m certainly aiming higher than that. As far as how we started the group, it felt good to do it that way. We had to do it that way as well because of the economics involved, which is a very real part of any group’s existence. It was a brand-new brand, we had no track record and we had to start small if this thing was going to survive.
Another thing that Chris was adamant about and extremely smart about was creating a band that can exist on its own finances and not have to take loans from people and get investors and all that. We bit the bullet early so we could build a business that could sustain itself. It was just a smart business move on Chris’ part that if we tightened our belts early and we built something real and authentic that it could sustain itself on its own and not have to bow to any business pressure. Then we’re the free artists that we want to be and we can live the free artistic life that everyone dreams about. We can play the exact kind of shows that we want. We can play a two-set, three-hour show and do it on our own terms. When we make records, we do have assistance from a label, but it’s not a huge thing that puts us in debt for the rest of our lives. We keep our record making on a reasonable turf. But when we make them we do exactly what we want, there’s no one barking at us to do anything. We make all the decisions ourselves, and the people that we work with trust us to come up with something good. We put every penny and every ounce of sweat we have into those records and shows because we do have the freedom that we built into the band. Starting the group in a van worked on many levels. As far as the stepping down form the bigger touring life, I think Chris is the one to really ask because he worked on such a higher level than the rest of us for so long. For myself, I traveled the high and low roads equally for a long time so it wasn’t as much of a shock for me.