The show was scheduled months in advance: three artists- Oakland psych-rockers Howlin Rain, area favorite GospelbeacH, and jamband upstart Pacific Range- playing at the Moroccan Lounge, a popular club in downtown Los Angeles. Fans circled it, noting the timing; a midweek date in late August on the heels of the Lockn festival. That was significant. Sadly, it became more significant than any would have wanted.
GospelbeacH, led by singer-songwriter/guitarist Brent Rademaker, is a group whose membership has fluctuated throughout its nascent existence. The first album they recorded, Pacific Surf Line, featured guitarist Neal Casal, a longtime friend and collaborator of Rademaker, and, at the time of its release in 2015, a rapidly emerging player on the scene. Casal was gaining notoriety within the jam world as the guitarist in the Chris Robinson Brotherhood, and with Circles Around the Sun- an all-instrumental quartet that had provided setbreak music for that summer’s Fare Thee Well Grateful Dead performances.
An avid photographer, Casal took the cover shot for GospelbeacH’s follow-up, Another Summer of Love. For a forthcoming third album, due this October, he was back on guitar. “I played the mixes for him, and asked what he thought,” said Rademaker. “He said his guitar was too loud. I told him that’s what people want to hear.” Rademaker was right. It was what people wanted to hear.
Casal wasn’t so much an anti-guitar hero- his influences included some of music’s most heroic; Keith Richards, Jimmy Page, Jerry Garcia- as he was anti-hero worship. He accepted compliments graciously, humbly, and then quickly deflected any praise back onto the music or the band performing it. He was a soldier forever in service of the song.
Casal died on August 26, 2019, just two days after performing for a final time- at the Lockn music festival in Arrington, Virginia. His last moments onstage were first with his band, Circles Around the Sun, and then with an all-star ensemble assembled by bassist Oteil Burbridge (Dead and Company) that included Bob Weir, Melvin Seals, Eric Krasno, Duane Betts, and Jason Crosby, among others. He sang lead on Garcia’s “Cats Under the Stars” and played beautifully complementary guitar.
At festival’s end, he was headed back to the West Coast, letting friends know of his intentions to make an appearance at the Moroccan.
Outside, on that late August Wednesday night, a Metro train hummed past the cozy club cornered into the outer reaches of L.A.’s Japantown neighborhood. An old Japanese temple stood shadowy and distinct across the street. It was reverent, and quietly serene, but for the dozen or so gathered to smoke and talk prior to GospelbeacH’s slot.
They all wore stickers on their shirts that read I (heart) Neal Casal. They hugged and cried, and hugged and cried again with each new arrival to the tribe. Collectively, they entered the club, and joined dozens of others as GospelbeacH moved through their emotional set. Rademaker prefaced songs with anecdotes about Casal’s contributions, and brought up guitarist/singer Sam Blasucci (Grateful Shred, Mapache) to join them, singing harmony on “In the Desert.”
Howlin Rain finished the night with a performance that, if not for the somber overtone of the evening (or perhaps because of it), rose to a glowing pinnacle with its determined intensity and cathartic release of energy. Guitarist and singer Ethan Miller and his trio of rock torchbearers played as though on a mission, leading furious new entries around a pair from the their last studio set, The Alligator Bride, as well as “Under the Wheels,” echoing the title of their forthcoming live release. It was bold, and commanding, and the next progressive step for a band that just seems to be getting better each time out.
In the barroom after the show, Rademaker sat in a booth with friends. He looked exhausted. In a pause between condolences from passing fans, he said without prompting, “Neal wouldn’t want us to be to be sad. He’d want us to be happy. We need to be happy.”