On the evening of Wednesday, September 25th, the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, New York hosted “There’s a Reward: A Celebration of the Life and Music of Neal Casal.” The event served as a gathering for grieving fans to commemorate the multi-talented musician who passed on August 26th at the age of 50. The event also served as a benefit concert for Musicares, an organization that offers services and resources for musicians facing financial, medical and personal emergencies. Over the course of five and a half hours, an audience of fans, friends and family were treated to performances by an eclectic array of musicians, including his former bands (Chris Robinson Brotherhood, Circles Around the Sun, Beachwood Sparks), collaborators, and acquaintances who admired his music. The songs that made up the two sets of music relied heavily on his work as a singer-songwriter and as an improvisational guitar hero, as well as choice covers of songs he loved.
Prior to the live performances, a slideshow presentation of Casal’s personal photographs was projected onto a large screen behind the rose-lined stage, proving that his hands not only knew how to make use of a guitar but also a camera. There were his candid, intimate shots of iconic musicians, including Mike Campbell of the Heartbreakers, Jackson Browne, Phil Lesh of the Grateful Dead, Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top, and Dave Navarro of Jane’s Addiction. Somehow, he could capture the beauty of ordinary, everyday scenes, such as a fallen tree over a power line, or a desert road stop. During the slideshow, The Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street played from start to finish, followed by “Moonlight Mile,” the closing track off of Sticky Fingers. another classic album by the British rock and roll band. The audience would soon find out that the chosen music was a request of the deceased musician. In what seemed to be an excerpt of a parting note, the following words were projected across the large screen as the slideshow concluded:
“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. 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.”
More tear-inducing moments followed. As the music phased out, a spotlight shined on an empty chair to the left side of the stage, and moments later, a member of the stage crew draped one of Casal’s jackets over it, while another member of the stage crew stood his custom-made Scott Walker guitar “Musket” next to it. After a moment of silence, “There’s a Reward” off of Casal’s 2005 solo album Return in Kind played over the PA system. Dori Freeman opened the first set of live music with a poignant acapella cover of Doc Watson’s “Your Long Journey.”
After Robbi Robb (of the bands Tribe After Tribe and Three Fish) led the audience through a shaman’s prayer and blessed the night’s festivities, Casal’s manager (and the evening’s emcee) Gary Waldman took the stage to speak about his long-time friend’s musical beginnings. He shared stories of how he and Casal met thirty-plus years earlier. He spoke of Casal’s hairband phase (yes, really) with the band Exire, and how the influence of early mentor Davis Jaynes inspired him to steer clear of that ill-fated music genre and onwards, down a more fulfilling path.
Tales of Casal’s time with the southern rock band Blackfoot (fronted by Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Rickey Medlocke) were told, including one about a New Year’s Eve gig in Detroit opening for Ted Nugent, which got some hearty laughs. As part of this “origins” segment of the show, Medlocke (who initially had been part of the night’s roster, but canceled last minute due to obligations with Lynyrd Skynyrd) sent a video praising Casal as a musician and as a human being, and Jaynes performed “Oh I Wept” by Free, a song that he and Casal bonded over. Backing up Jaynes (as well as other artists throughout the evening) was bassist Dave Schools, keyboardist John Ginty, steel pedal guitarist John Graboff, drummer Dan Fadel, and guitarist Jesse Aycock.
While touring and recording with Blackfoot, Casal had started to write and play songs on the acoustic guitar. To kick off the segment dedicated to Casal’s “unplugged” era, his first recording, a cover of the 1930 jazz standard “On the Sunnyside of the Street,” recorded for his father’s birthday in 1989, played over the PA system. Waldman then spoke about the making of Casal’s first solo album “Fade Away/Diamond Time,” which led into Leslie Mendelson’s moving cover of “Feel No Pain,” which Casal considered to be one of the best songs he had ever penned. Joining the New York-based pianist/ singer-songwriter was bassist Bob Glaub, drummer Don Heffington, and vocalist Angie Mckenna, all participants in the recording of “Fade Away/ Diamond Time” as well as other early solo albums released by Casal. Ginty and Graboff and pedal guitarist John Shannon rounded out the ensemble, who also performed a lovely take on Jackson Browne’s “Rock Me On the Water,” another cover that was loved by the musician being celebrated.
For a moment, the music deviated from the acoustic format, when Robbi Rob returned to the stage backed by bassist Jeff Hill, Ginty, and Fadel, to perform “Woman Like You,” a dark psychedelic trip of a song that he used to play with Casal when they were gigging together in the early nineties.
It was then back to another run of hollow-bodied numbers. Kenny Roby, the North Carolina-based Americana artist whose new album was being produced by Casal at the time of his death, delivered a gorgeous take of Fred Neil’s “The Dolphins,” before segueing into a soulful cover of Casal’s “Too Much to Ask.” To the surprise of many, Roby was followed by an unannounced appearance from country/folk-rock legend Steve Earle, who offered a solo rendition of Casal’s “Highway Butterfly,” a song written about Earle’s dear friend Townes Van Zandt, the influential singer-songwriter from Texas.
Clarence Greenwood, the R&B/reggae influenced folk artist that records and tours under the name Citizen Cope, also took the stripped-down route, performing his own “Sideways.” Hazeldine, the female-dominated alternative country act from Albuquerque that Casal toured alongside in the late nineties, reunited for a rich version of his song “Today I’m Gonna Bleed.” Todd Sheaffer played a pair of Casal’s solo songs “Real Country Dark” and “December,” and was followed by his Railroad Earth bandmate Tim Carbone’s solo fiddle performance of “Carrickfergus.” Mapache, a band that Casal had become a big fan of over the past year, offered covers of Towne Van Zandt’s “The Last Thing on My Mind” and Ralph Stanley’s “Angel Band.”
Hinting at the hip-shakers and electrification to come, Hazy Malaze, the boogie funk-rock three-piece band that Casal played in with Hill and Fadel closed out the first set with their song “Thank You in Advance,” augmented by guitarist Scott Metzger, Ginty, Graboff, pianist Jason Crosby, drummer Marcus Randolph and Roby on vocals.
The Capitol Theatre’s owner Peter Shapiro took the stage before the start of a short intermission to tell a story about the formation of Casal’s band Circles Around the Sun, and how they played both their first and last show ever on the same stage in Garcia’s Forest, at the Lockn’ Festival he puts together every year in Arrington, Virginia. As Shapiro emphasized that they started as a performing band there, and ended it there, truly a “circle around the sun.” He then informed the crowd that moving forward, that very stage would forever be known as “Neal’s Stage,” and presented a plaque confirming the tribute.
Crosby opened the second set with a beautiful solo piano rendition of Casal’s “Pray Me Home,” and was followed by a few performances of cosmic twang. Zephaniah Ohora, the Brooklyn-based country western singer-songwriter whose new album was produced by Casal, played a new song called “Listening to the Music,” backed by Adam MacDougall on piano, Hill, and a few others. A partial Hard Working Americans reunion followed, when Aycock, Schools, and drummer Duane Trucks, joined by MadDougall, guitarist Lauren Barth, Graboff, and Fadel delivered a celestial take of Casal’s “The Losing End Again.” Casal’s former band Beachwood Sparks reassembled (with Tony Leone on drums) for a handful of songs, including “Old Manatee,” “Leave That Light On,” “Talk About Lonesome” and “The Sun Surrounds Me.”
Over the past decade, Casal became more and more immersed in the Grateful Dead universe and the jamband scene inspired by them, and this phase of his music career was represented in most of the remaining performances. Drummer Joe Russo, Adam MacDougal, Hill, Ginty, Fadel, and Aycock played along to a recording of Casal’s magnificent sung cover of The Dead’s “Ship of Fools.” In 2015, Casal formed the band Circles Around the Sun for the sole purpose of creating setbreak music for the Grateful Dead’s “Fare Thee Well” 50th-anniversary concerts in 2015, but they became a much bigger sensation than expected, leading to full-blown nationwide tours over the past few years. The band’s highly anticipated set found MacDougall, drummer Mark Levy, and bassist Dan Horne playing their first set with Soulive’s Eric Krasno on guitar, who will be stepping into Casal’s role for their upcoming tour dates. The band laid down the lava lamp funk of “On My Mind,” and then invited Russo out to play on the kaleidoscopic “When I Was at Peace,” off of their new collaborative release due out in November.
A poem by Casal’s friend, written entirely of the musician’s songs and lyrics was read by Waldman. Metzger followed, offering an outstanding solo acoustic cover of Richard Thompson’s “1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” a song that both he and Casal had a mutual affection for.
Casal’s connection with the music of the Grateful Dead carried on with most of the members of Joe Russo’s Almost Dead, with Adam MacDougall filling in on keys in place of Marco Benevento. The ensemble offered up “Black Muddy River,” followed by “Playing In The Band.” Ryan Adams’ “Let It Ride” performed within the latter song, the night’s sole acknowledgment of Casal’s time as one a core member of Adams’ backing band The Cardinals from 2005-2010.
Closing out the second set was the Chris Robinson Brotherhood, featuring the band’s namesake on vocals, Tony Leone, Jeff Hill, and Green Leaf Rustlers guitarist Greg Loiacono, along with original keyboardist Adam MacDougall, making for a bittersweet reunion. The band’s five-song set kicked off with a loose cover of Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young,” into a rousing cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Loving Cup.” A pair of originals followed; “Star Or Stone,” which Robinson pointed out was the first song he had written with Casal, as well as “A Smiling Epitaph” off of the band’s swan song, “Servants of the Sun.” The band concluded their set with a cover of Rod Stewart’s “Mandolin Wind,” which was the last song that the CRB played with Casal a few months earlier. Robinson dedicated the closing number to Casal and his girlfriend Desiree.
For the event’s encore, many of the night’s performers crammed onto the stage to sing the traditional hymn “Farther Along.” Robbi Robb delivered one final prayer, asking those in attendance and those streaming from home to contemplate on the joy and happiness that Casal and his music brought to them, and to please reflect it back on the departed musician. Many tears were shed and many hearts ached during the night’s festivities, but if the evening’s festivities proved anything, it was that Casal’s music will live on through the records and songs he’s made and that his influence will be felt by the souls he touched, both artists and fans alike.