“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.”
Projected behind the stage as The Rolling Stones‘ “Moonlight Mile” blared from the PA, those excerpted words from the note Neal Casal left behind served as the template for the evening’s festivities at There’s A Reward: A Celebration of the Life & Music of Neal Casal. An all-star cast of friends from throughout Casal’s long, decorated artistic career honored those wishes at The Capitol Theatre on Wednesday night, coming together to grieve the loss and celebrate the life of the beloved singer, songwriter, guitarist, and photographer who left us just weeks ago.
They did play Exile in full as a Justin Kreutzmann-curated slideshow of Neal’s photos played on the stage screen. They did play “Moonlight Mile”. They did remember all of the good times, the music, the images, the waves, recounted stories about their interactions with Neal through the years. They told tales of days past, played music Neal wrote, music he loved, giving fans, family, and friends alike insight into the kind heart and gentle soul of this one-of-a-kind human being.
All the while, a chair sat next to Neal’s guitar at stage right adorned with Casal’s jacket and a single red rose. Surfboards hung overhead and rested solemnly on either side of the stage. While no longer with us in body, Neal’s spirit loomed large over the Cap throughout this emotional evening.
[Photo: Andrew Blackstein]
Casal’s childhood friend and longtime manager, Gary Waldman, served as the master of ceremonies for the night, taking the crowd through the various stages of Neal’s life and career as he introduced each performer.
After a montage of artful Casal footage played under Neal’s tender recording of Joe Higgs‘ “There’s A Reward”, the evening’s performances got started with an a cappella rendition of “Your Long Journey” sung by Dori Freeman and a short, spiritual prayer and a cathartic round of applause led by South African artist, “shaman,” and longtime Casal colleague Robbi Robb.
Next, Waldman returned to the stage to recount his early days with Neal in New Jersey, Neal’s first band, Exire, his time playing in Blackfoot with Rickey Medlocke (who sent his regards via a recorded video message), and how he was “steered away from hair metal” by his eventual mentor, Davis Jaynes. From there, Jaynes took the stage with Dave Schools (Widespread Panic), Jesse Aycock, John Ginty, and more to perform Free‘s “I Wept”, one of Neal’s favorite tunes.
Waldman then spoke about how he connected Neal with Jim Scott, who went on to produce his first solo album, 1995’s Fade Away Diamond Time. As Gary noted, Scott is now in the process of completing the forthcoming album from Neal’s Circles Around The Sun—meaning he had served as the producer on Casal’s first and last albums.
From there, he welcomed Leslie Mendelson, Don Heffington, Jon Graboff, John Ginty, and John Shannon to the stage for renditions of Fade Away Diamond Time track “Feel No Pain” and Jackson Browne‘s “Rock Me On The Water”, another favorite of Neal’s. Robbi Robb returned to the stage next for a performance of “Woman Like You”, a song which he noted Neal Casal would refer to as a mix between “a love song and a magic spell.”
Singer-songwriter Kenny Roby took his turn at the mic with “Too Much To Ask” and “Dolphins” before legendary singer-songwriter Steve Earle took the stage with his guitar and harmonica. As Earle noted, “I only knew Neal a little bit, but I saw him play a lot, and I learned something every time I did.” He explained how Neal felt very strongly about the songs he wrote and opted to perform a rendition of Neal’s “Highway Butterfly“, a song he wrote in the wake of the death of Townes Van Zandt.
Longtime friend Clarance Greenwood, better known as Citizen Cope emerged next for a somber rendition of his own hit, “Sideways”. Next up was Hazeldine, a band with whom Neal played for several years. They performed another Neal Casal original, “Today I’m Gonna Bleed”. As Waldman noted in a moment of levity, in 1997, Rolling Stone in Germany named Hazeldine the best new band in a list of up-and-coming acts. Ranked second behind Hazeldine on that list was another band you may have heard of: Radiohead.
A pair of solo performances from members of Railroad Earth followed, as Todd Sheaffer performed a powerful pair of Casal tunes on guitar and harmonica and Tim Carbone played one of his own wistful instrumentals on the violin. After a pair of songs performed by Mapache, Neal’s former band, Hazy Malaise, normally a power trio, reconvened as a 10-piece augmented by Jason Crosby, Scott Metzger, and many more to honor that chapter in Casal’s story.
To close out the first half of the evening, impresario Peter Shapiro, the owner of The Cap, Brooklyn Bowl, LOCKN’ Festival, and more, took the stage to talk about recruiting Neal to compose set break music for the Grateful Dead‘s 50th-anniversary celebration, Fare Thee Well, back in 2015. That project led to the creation of Circles Around The Sun, Neal’s latest band.
As Shapiro recounted, Circles Around The Sun played their first-ever live show in LOCKN’s Garcia’s Forest in 2016. Three years later, at LOCKN’ 2019, Neal played his final set with CATS on that same magical stage. In honor of that fateful “circle,” Shapiro revealed that the stage in Garcia’s Forest will henceforth be known as “Neal’s Stage.”
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In an orbit of their own, @circlesaroundthesunofficial played their first and last show with Neal Casal at the Garcia’s Forest at LOCKN’. Tonight at @capitoltheatre, Peter Shapiro dedicated the Garcia’s Forest stage in honor of Neal. His music will forever flow through our trees and lift our souls.
After a brief intermission, the evening’s second set got underway with Jason Crosby performing “Pray Me Home” and Zephaniah Ohora playing “Listening To The Music”. Next, Neal’s former Hard Working Americans brethren Jesse Aycock, Dave Schools, and Duane Trucks, as well as Neal’s CATS/Chris Robinson Brotherhood bandmate Adam MacDougall, stepped up for a thrilling rendition of Casal’s “The Losing End Again”.
As the evening’s narrative headed toward Neal’s move from New Jersey to California in 2000, Beachwood Sparks took the stage to talk about meeting Neal Casal, his love of surfing, adding him to their band, and touring the nation together with The Black Crowes ahead of their emotional mini-set. As the band’s keyboardist noted ahead of their final song—echoing a sentiment touched on several times throughout the night—Neal was always excited by crowds turning up at the shows and connecting with the music. That kind of thing was what made him tick. Seeing so many devoted fans and loved ones in the audience on this night would surely have brought a sincere smile to Neal’s face.
One of the most emotional moments of the night came next, as Aycock, MacDougall, Joe Russo, and CRB bandmates Jeff Hill and Tony Leone stepped to the stage to perform Jerry Garcia/Robert Hunter-penned Grateful Dead favorite, “Ship of Fools”. It took a moment for the crowd to realize that the beautiful voice singing the song’s vocal lead wasn’t coming from the stage—it was Neal. With his musical brothers providing the backing track and harmonies, Neal’s take on this classic ballad made certain there wasn’t a single dry eye in the house.
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@nealcasal’s vocals on “Ship of Fools” played over a live backing track/harmonies courtesy of @macdougallkeys, @joeyjoeyrusso, @jesseaycock @tonyleonemusic and @jeffhillbass…Yea, I cried. . 9/25/19 . #jerrygarcia #roberthunter #gratefuldead #shipoffools #nealcasal #theresareward #liveforlivemusic
Next up was one of the most highly anticipated performances of the night, as Neal’s Circles Around The Sun—featuring Adam MacDougall, drummer Mark Levy, and bassist Dan Horne—took the stage for the first time since his passing. As the band had previously stated, Neal gave specific wishes that the band should continue in the note he left behind. Decorated guitarist Eric Krasno was tapped as the interim CATS guitarist, and showed that he was undoubtedly the right man for the job in his debut performance with the group. After a thrilling, extended jam on their first song, Joe Russo joined in on a second drum set, a nod to the band’s forthcoming Circles Around The Sun Meets Joe Russo EP. While Neal’s unique presence was sorely missed, this brief but remarkable performance affirmed that Circles Around The Sun is still one of the best bands on the road today.
Scott Metzger stepped to the mic with an acoustic guitar next to deliver a standout performance of Richard Thompson‘s “1952 Vincent Black Lightning”, a song both he and Neal love. Once he finished the song, Metzger traded in his acoustic for an electric as the majority of his Joe Russo’s Almost Dead bandmates (Tom Hamilton, Joe Russo, Dave Dreiwitz) and MacDougall joined him onstage for a Dead-centric three-song set featuring an emotional take on “Black Muddy River” and a highly exploratory “Playing In The Band” with a cover of Ryan Adams & The Cardinals‘ “Let It Ride” worked inside it, a wonderful homage to Casal’s time in that band. This “Almost” Joe Russo’s Almost Dead segment, while short, delivered emotion and excitement in spades.
For the final “set” of the evening, Chris Robinson took the stage with CRB bassist Jeff Hill and drummer Tony Leone as well as former CRB keyboardist Adam MacDougall and guitarist Greg Loiacono for a set that featured touching covers of Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young”, The Rolling Stones’ “Loving Cup”, and Rod Stewart‘s “Mandolin Wind” as well as CRB favorites “Star or Stone” (the first song Neal and Chris wrote for the CRB) and “A Smiling Epitaph”.
As the clock hands pushed past 1 a.m., all the evening’s featured artists joined together onstage for a moving rendition of “Farther Along”, followed by a brief closing prayer from Robb. “See an image of Neal maybe when you last saw him,” Robb instructed. “See his beautiful eyes, his soft smile. … See Neal in your mind’s eye and, if you want, see a radiant light moving through your heart to his. The more love you send on that light, the more he radiates.”
We plan to honor Robb’s directive. We can still feel the warmth and love that radiated off Neal every time he performed. That’s how we’ll remember him, now and always. Thank you for everything, Neal. You are loved.
Below, you can watch a full video of There’s A Reward: A Celebration of the Life & Music of Neal Casal via The Relix Channel and scroll through a gallery of photos from the evening courtesy of photographer Andrew Blackstein:
There’s A Reward: A Celebration of the Life & Music of Neal Casal