When Craig MacArthur started the recording process of his band The Casual Coalition’s new record, The Rendering Of A Ghost, he had a veritable “who’s who” roster of some of the San Francisco Bay Area’s best working musicians in his pocket. Over seven years of working at Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh’s Terrapin Crossroads as a house sound engineer and, later, talent booker, MacArthur had gained friendships with some great players (to say the least).
Terrapin provided Craig and his cohorts a musical laboratory in which this wide-ranging array of musical talent could come together, and play a limitless list of genres from jazz one night to ’80s covers the next, to, of course, a Grateful Dead night. Seven nights a week, the place crackled with creativity. This meant that a core group of players, early on, found themselves playing in a band that held improvisation at its core and could turn on a dime. These guys found themselves constantly collaborating and stretching their musical horizons, exploring in the true spirit of Terrapin’s musical mission. There was never a rehearsal, it was just a set up, plug in, and go kind of show.
“It was a place I found people that I could gel with both personally and musically,” says MacArthur. It was also a place in which he could bring his own songs to his friends and work them out together on stage in front of an audience that might number thirty on a Tuesday and three hundred on a Friday or Saturday. These nights always allowed for exploration and Terrapin’s “Keep it weird” ethos openly encouraged that. MacArthur took this coalition of musicians outside of Terrapin too, expanding the band’s reach out of Marin County to Santa Cruz County in the south and Sonoma County in the north.
Once the songs had been tested and honed live, it became clear that it was time for him to make a record and time to make some calls. His trusted friend, musical partner and outstanding producer/engineer David Simon Baker (DSB) was the first to get the call. Under DSB’s watchful eye and expert ear, the project would already benefit from sonic excellence. From there, Craig called upon a revolving cast of musicians including, Brian Rashap (The Mother Hips), Steve Adams (ALO), and Scott Thunes (Frank Zappa) on bass, to Jeremy Hoenig (Melvin Seales & JGB) and Dan Luehring (San Geronimo), Sean Nelson (Go By Ocean), Alex Koford (Terrapin Family Band) on drums, Greg Loiacono (Mother Hips), Scott Law (Phil Lesh and Friends), Mark Karan (Ratdog), Dave Zirbel (San Geronimo) among others on guitar, as well as Danny Eisenberg (The Mother Hips), and Scott Guberman (Phil Lesh and Friends) on keys as well as others. These guys would come in and play their parts as schedules allowed, it was a free and collaborative process kept as casual as possible.
The end result of three years worth of recording is far from that wide-open exploratory sound you might hear from this band live. Instead, The Rendering Of A Ghost is a tight collection of nine songs coming from MacArthur’s own life experience. And though the band grew within the Grateful Dead universe, do NOT expect any part of this album to emulate that sound. Instead, the songs are punchier, even poppier, leaning more toward Wilco than any Jerry Garcia project or Grateful Dead cover band.
The topics that the album confronts are heavy. As Craig says, “The album material is serious and about my own personal struggles dealing with daily life, modern politics, my own struggles with alcohol. All of these things, in addition to the daily beatdowns we receive, can lead to depression and that cocktail could cause someone to want to check out on life. That is the rendering of a ghost.”
While the subject matter is tough for people to hear, the conversation it endeavors to continue is essential. Being released at the end of a year in which this music community has experienced its own shocking and heartbreaking loss (Neal Casal), the realization of recognizing deepening depression is vital. MacArthur continues, “Even seemingly happy people are dealing with difficulties and pain and music is a great vehicle through which we can reach others.” While relatable to so many of us, the message in Rendering Of A Ghost inherently reminds us that we are not alone, that our struggles are shared with others, and that if we confront those struggles, a sympathetic ear is a conversation starter away.
The track, “The Point” is a perfect example. It is about getting to that place in which you just can’t take it anymore – you’re fed up. Fed up with the litter, the pollution, fed up with the politics, the fires, the endlessness of Covid, fed up with a country led by an amoral, sycophantic, self-aggrandizing blowhard who has held progress in check for the last four years.
Never thought I’d Lose my mind,
But the lunatics have taken over!
Give me good ol’ isolation
Because the ignorant are getting bolder
Don’t count on luck to be on your side,
‘Cause I know that the road is rough.
I’ve reached the point where I’ve
Finally had enough!
It is something that most of us can understand, a feeling that makes itself loudly known every day at this point. The song reveals no answer to the struggle, but it echoes our thoughts and therein we can find calm through shared frustration. And this, in a larger sense, is the arc of the record. It takes us from that sense of frustration and through a life lived with the bonus track (available only on the vinyl release), part of which was penned by a very special guest, addresses the flight to the next stage afterlife and confronting what might have been done differently or the regrets one might feel as they cross from one plane to the next.
With this first album, The Casual Coalition has nailed a difficult, emotionally-laden collection of songs through fantastic musicianship and a shared goal of finding joy through music. Two albums worth of new material sit in the can, ready for release in 2021 and one of those will be an entirely instrumental offering. When live music returns, the band will casually return to the road and bring their magic up and down the coast of California. With all of its talent and creativity, The Casual Coalition has an incredible road unfolding in front of it. The Rendering Of A Ghost will be available on all streaming outlets on Halloween, 2020 and physical copies will be available in vinyl format only (www.casualcoalition.com). The special bonus song, “Pelican Flight,” Craig’s personal favorite track, will only be available with the vinyl.