Photos by Dino Perrucci

On Wednesday, Sept. 25, a star-studded roster of musicians gathered at The Capitol Theatre to grieve loss and celebrate the legacy of the late Neal Casal.

The five-plus hour, highly emotional performance featured a surprise appearance by Steve Earle, saw the debut of Circles Around The Sun with Eric Krasno and revealed the dedication of “Neal’s Stage” in Garcia’s Forest at the LOCKN’ Festival. The show benefited MusiCares®, an organization that “provides a safety net of critical assistance for music people in times of need.”

When friends and fans walked into The Capitol Theatre, they were greeted by a slideshow of Casal’s own photography, set to the audio of The Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street. The late musician’s surfboards also surrounded the stage.

As fans would later find out, the Stones record was one of Casal’s requests for the service, as written in what appeared to be his parting letter.

“Have an epic party for me and play my favorite records, and remember all of the good times we had, the music, images, and waves we caught. That’s all,” read his note, projected onstage. “Play Exile On Main Street from beginning to end, and especially play ‘Moonlight Mile.’ It’s my song, always has been, it’s me. I used to lay with my headphones on and listen to that song over and over again and it would make me cry and inspire me to live and create. It’s beautiful and elegant and tough and sad and hopeful all at once. Everything I ever wanted to be.”

As “Moonlight Mile” reverberated through The Capitol Theatre, Casal’s jacket and guitar were brought out and given a place of honor on stage right. They would remain there for the rest of the evening.

The musical portion of the evening started after a hymnal version of Doc Watson’s “Your Long Journey” by Dori Freeman and a prayerful invocation by Robbi Robb.

Davis Jaynes sung “Oh I Wept,” by Davis Jaynes which emcee Gary Waldman noted as one of Casal’s favorite songs. Casal’s own 1989 solo recording of “Sunny Side of the Street” followed.

Throughout the evening artists not only performed Casal’s own music, but iconic songs that they thought best captured his essence. Leslie Mendelson played a stirring version of Jackson Browne’s “Rock Me On The Water” and, later, Steve Earle made an unannounced appearance, playing a solo version of “Highway Butterfly,” a tune Casal wrote for the late Townes Van Zandt.

Before halftime, Capitol Theatre owner Peter Shapiro captivated the crowd with a speech describing the full-circle nature of Casal’s career, most notably how Circles Around The Sun played both their first and final shows with Casal at LOCKN’s Garcia’s Forest stage. Shapiro ended by announcing that henceforth the Garcia’s Forest stage will be known at “Neal’s Stage At Garcia’s Forest,” with a plaque to prove it.

To start the second set, Jason Crosby sat behind the piano for a solemn version of “Pray Me Home.”

Later, Casal’s former bandmates in Beachwood Sparks took the stage, performing a four-song set of “Old Manatee,” “Leave That Light On,” “Talk About Lonesome” and “The Sun Surrounds Me.”

Jesse Aycock, Jeff Hill, Adam Macdougal, Joe Russo, Dan Fadel and John Ginty then offered one of Casal’s favorite Dead tunes “Ship of Fools,” complete with pre-recorded guitar and vocals by Neal Casal.

Russo stuck around to jam with Circles Around The Sun, who welcomed Eric Krasno for the first time to stand in for Casal (Krasno will continue on with CATS for the entire fall tour). The band played Let It Wander cut “On My Mind” as well as “When I Was At Peace,” a track off their forthcoming Circles Around The Sun Meets Joe Russo EP, which features Casal. Krasno was particularly inspired by the latter tune, launching into a wailing solo that would have done Casal proud.

Next, Scott Metzger offered a dynamic solo acoustic take on Richard Thompson’s “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” which he introduced as “a song that both Neal and I loved.”

Joe Russo’s Almost Dead (with Circles Around the Sun’s Adam MacDougall taking on keyboard duties in lieu of Marco Benevento) built toward a celebratory energy with “Black Muddy River”> “Playing In The Band”> “Let It Ride”> “Playing In The Band.”

And Chris Robinson Brotherhood closed the show with a five song set, including “Forever Young,” “Loving Cup,” “Star or Stone,” “Smiling Epitaph” and “Mandolin Wind.”

The traditional hymn “Farther Along” brought all of the featured musicians out for one final emotional sing-along and – with roses lining the stage – Robbi Robb gave one last prayer, asking the crowd to close their eyes and imagine Casal as he was.

“See an image of Neal maybe when you last saw him. See his beautiful eyes, his soft smile. The thing I was always jealous about him was his bellbottoms,” Robb chuckled. “He looked really good in those. See Neal in your mind’s eye and, if you want, see a radiant light moving through your heart to his. The more love you send on that light the more he radiates…”

Watch the entire, five-plus hour tribute and check out a photo gallery below.

If you’d like to make a donation to MusiCares® click here.