Before Neal Casal took his own life in August 2019, one of the final wishes he stipulated was for a book to be created from the photos he had taken over the years. The result is Tomorrow’s Sky: Photographs by Neal Casal, proceeds from the sale of which benefit the nonprofit music Foundation that bears the much-beloved musician’s name.
It’s alternately sad and uplifting to peruse this compendium of photographs. The sense of what might have been is almost but not quite tempered by what actually is, in this case, two-hundred forty-some pages in hardbound 12”x 10” form that effectively comprises the definition of a coffee-table book.
But this weighty tome transcends any cliched idea of its presence intended merely for show. On the contrary. Tomorrow’s Sky begs to be picked up at a moment’s notice–and often for that matter–if only because this collection of images makes for such a compelling (if at times confounding) read. With its themes stipulated only in the most general sense–the six sections are entitled ‘Surf,’ ‘Road,’ ‘Rooms,’ ‘Humans,’ ‘Travel’ & ‘Music’–it’s a challenge to at first determine what exactly caught Casal’s eye and motivated him to aim his camera in that particular direction. Many of the pictures are that dense.
Yet the visual conundrums pique the curiosity to look more closely. And, more often than not, as with the best music to the ears, with each gaze more appears to meet the eyes. The impromptu visual of CRB/CATS bandmate Adam MacDougall in a forlorn mood is thus as moving in its own way as the angle taken on a fence painted with doves and the phrase ‘Set Me Free.” As with the best such compilations like Tomorrow’s Sky, it can be just as captivating (if not more so) to perceive what else catches the attention in addition to discerning the actual target(s) of the lens.
Kudos go to Jay & Ricki Blakesberg for the editing and production (with Gary Waldman) for Rock Out Books. But the truth of the matter is, there was plenty of provocative material to work with. Casal seemed to transfer his musicianly sense into his approach to taking photos; that is, the main subjects, whether females in a restaurant booth or beach-goers on the sand, represent a song, while the background to that scene stands as the arrangement, each of which plays off against the other.
The improvisational aspect at which Casal excelled with a guitar comes into play as his various shots are sorted out for display in the book via the discerning eyes of the aforementioned trio. That’s why, at least in part, the absence of captions or a bibliographic appendix is really not a shortfall; no question it might be helpful to know all the names of the people in the group image containing the disparate likes of ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons and folk-rock poet Jackson Browne. But as with the shot of two men playing chess in a seemingly random location, it seems less important if one is Phil Lesh or not (it isn’t) because the activity itself and the environment in which it occurred is now vividly captured and preserved for posterity.
The text that does appear in the book literally and figuratively frames a composite of photos that form a subliminal portrait of Neal Casal. With only the slightest hints at the dark that may have afflicted this gifted man, the writing comprises the finishing touch on what may stand as the most articulate and to-the-point eulogy to its subject this side of a musical homage. Composed by, respectively, Widespread Panic bassist Dave Schools, surfing pal Elizabeth Pepin Silva, significant other Christy Coleman and one-time bandmate Ryan Adams, the prose in the form of a foreword, intro, afterword, and essay is as reasoned as it is passionate (except the latter’s who too obviously strains to sound poetic).
If that sounds misappropriated at worst and ironic at best given the subject, the fact is Tomorrow’s Sky—as suggested in its back-cover verse from the Casal solo ballad of the same name—is devoted to a musician who could not only hear music but see it in a different form virtually everywhere he looked.