“What a great start!” exclaimed guitarist Neal Casal after Circles Around the Sun unfastened their evening’s trip with “On My Mind,” the lead track from their sophomore album, Let it Wander. Clocking in at over ten minutes, the sharply executed instrumental opened the second visit this year to Los Angeles- this time to downtown’s Teragram, a slightly larger trade-up following January’s date at the cozy Troubadour- and showed just how much the quartet has grown since their 2015 debut. With a stylistic bent towards freeform funk, the CATS delighted in lengthy, yet intentioned grooves that kept the near-capacity huddle in perpetual motion on the ballroom floor.
Contrasted with that Troubadour appearance, or even with the group’s first album, Circles have evolved nicely from a Grateful Dead-related project into a stand-alone band. If the original impetus was to have some creative fun providing set-break music for the Dead’s Fare Thee Well shows, the robust response from fans, and the time to concentrate on the writing of the second album, have empowered a now funkadelic foursome. Three shimmering glass disco balls, mounted on thin posts behind the band, served as minimalist stage dressing, but were also metaphoric, depicting the CATS’ sideways shift from swirls to hip-shakes.
The two-hour show balanced the two realms, alternating between the first record’s repertoire and latest like “One for Chuck,” a slashing, jazz-inflected romp preceded by Casal’s rhetorical request to the audience for a drill for some undisclosed troubleshooting onstage. Whatever the problem could’ve been, it had no effect on the performance. The four were lockstep tight, hitting changes with mere glances and nods, supporting the clawing solos by Casal and keyboardist Adam MacDougall that moved the bodies: from bobbing heads to shuffling soles. The set was equally polychromatic, streaking colors electrifying or pastoral, provocative or sedate, across canvases held in place by the steadfast drumming of Mark Levy and pliant rhythm of his compatriot on bass, Dan Horne.
The night began calmly enough, and like any good aperitif, the supporting duo Mapache was a perfectly placid choice. The pair of guitarists held the anxious crowd mostly enchanted and silent with their cosmic brand of acoustic folk, receiving their loudest ovation after a smiling rendition of “Lonesome L.A. Cowboy.” Their voices matching beautifully in harmony, the two- Sam Blasucci and Clay Finch- also serve, not coincidentally, as the guitarists and singers in Grateful Shred, (with Horne, as well) making this a fittingly “family” affair for the Friday after Thanksgiving.
In its inception, Circles Around the Sun was an opportunity to be a unique add-on to a massive musical event. Had it not been for the overwhelmingly enthusiastic reaction, a tour and a follow-up album seemed unlikely. Yet, behind that positive swell of support, give these four credit for not serving up leftovers, and instead developing more deeply as a unit dedicated to originality, purpose, and a motivation of their own.