“Do you guys all feel this in the air right now?” Brooklyn Bowl owner Peter Shapiro asked as the proceedings got underway on Monday night, “because that’s James Casey. … I’m so glad that tonight, James Casey is headlining and selling out the Brooklyn Bowl.”
The beloved saxophonist, singer, and producer, who passed away in August following a lengthy cancer battle, was a longtime fixture at the Brooklyn, NY music venue/bowling alley, just as liable to be found attending shows around the city to support his friends as he was to appear onstage with any band on any given evening.
On this night, just over two months after his passing, his friends, family, and fans were out in numbers to honor his life and memory—to celebrate the creativity, passion, and artistry James brought to his life and work. While the music lineup for the event was not announced ahead of time, those familiar with the breadth and prestige of Casey’s work knew that any celebration of his life would have to include an eclectic collection of world-class contributors. They were not wrong.
With SiriusXM‘s Ari Fink serving as the evening’s emcee, scores of talented musicians (it would be a fool’s errand to try to name them all) took the stage to honor James through music as even more notables mingled in the audience, from his Billy & The Kids bandmates Tom Hamilton and Aron Magner to celebrated bassist Brady Watt to members of the cast of Stranger Things. While the significance of the evening hung heavily in the air over the three-plus hours at the Bowl, the prevailing emotion on the stage and in the audience was joyous, not somber—just as had James wanted.
As the evening’s musical curator and James’ brother-in-law, The Tonight Show bandleader Louis Cato, explained early on, “For all of us that had the pleasure of knowing this incredible human being, you know that he has always been the life of the party. … As he transitioned into the next phase of his journey, he made it very clear: ‘I don’t want a funeral, I want a party.'” After telling his young daughter, James’s niece, to cover her ears via livestream, Cato laid out the mission for the night: “He wanted a party, so that’s what the f— we gon’ do.”
Cato showed off his genius on various different instruments (guitar, bass, drums, vocals) as led the first set of the evening, beginning with an appropriate rendition of Sly & The Family Stone‘s “Family Affair”. After nodding to Six Figures, an old project started by Cato and Casey, the spotlight shifted to James’ innovative early-2010s live producer project, Animus Rexx, with Cato filling in for original drummer Justin Tyson alongside band members Rueben Cainer, Randy Runyon, and Big Yuki for a taste of the group’s self-described “Soul/Rock/Electro/Blues. in a blender. with hot sauce. and bourbon.”
Between sets, James’s wife, Ayla, and spokespeople for the evening’s two beneficiaries, Colorectal Cancer Alliance (CCA) and Association of Black Gastroenterologists and Hepatologists (ABGH), gave impassioned pleas to the people to get checked for early signs of illness and advocate for their own health and treatment—a running theme of the proceedings—and praised James for his commitment to helping the cause even as his condition worsened.
Up next was a brief set by the Trey Anastasio Band, of which Casey was a member for more than a decade. Saxophonist Ryan Zoidis, James’ former Lettuce bandmate, admirably held down Casey’s empty spot on the stage, adding creative layers of melodic texture to “Mozambique”. Tedeschi Trucks Band vocalist Alecia Chakour, Snarky Puppy trumpeter Mike “Maz” Maher, and Beacon Jams vet Jo Lampert joined the group for the uplifting “Everything’s Right” that followed.
Trey Anastasio Band – “Everything’s Right” [Pro-Shot] – 11/6/23
“It’s incomprehensible how much we love James and how grateful we are for every single second we got to be with him,” Trey Anastasio said during a brief break between songs. Introducing the next number, the TAB debut of Charles Wright classic “Express Yourself”, Anastasio added, “James used to really like singing this song. … I wish he was here to sing it for you, so you have to use your imagination, but we’ll all try to fill in the blanks a little bit.”
Casey’s presence was undeniable as Chakour and Jennifer Hartswick went on to express themselves with head-spinning vocal runs. The ensemble continued to grow as the four-song set came to a close with “Rise/Come Together”; by the end of the performance, six talented friends stood alongside Hartswick and Natalie Cressman in Casey’s customary spot, filling the void with love and appreciation.
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Trey Anastasio Band & Friends – “Express Yourself” (Charles Wright) [Pro-Shot] – 11/6/23
After another turnover, Nikki Glaspie (The Nth Power) helmed a gospel/funk/go-go set that brought upwards of 25 musicians to the stage to make some joyful noise. From a salute to the holy spirit on a group rendition of gospel classic “I Don’t Know What You Came To Do” to a Nigel Hall-led tour of Earth, Wind & Fire and Parliament-Funkadelic classics, the music found strength in its communal nature, the Churchadelic chorus of voices and personalities wavered artfully between soulful Sunday service and P-Funk-style organized chaos to hair-raising effect.
Louis Cato once again took the stage as time wound down to present a video PSA James had made advocating for frequent colorectal cancer screenings and speak off-the-cuff about his fallen brother. “My relationship with James has been a full body part of my identity,” he reflected, noting that Casey was unique in the music world as someone who was as loving and gracious as he was talented and ambitious.
“He was committed to putting love into the music always,” Cato said, “and always put that same love into his friends and gave it to his family. He has always been that rare breed that can engage in music and spirit and craft and vocabulary and also meet you where you are at the highest level.” After beginning the final segment with a collaborative rendition of Sly & The Family Stone’s “I Want To Take You Higher”, a take on one of Casey’s originals, “E.J.B.M.“, showcased a battalion of horn players to bring the emotional celebration to a close.
The livestream of the event is still available to order on-demand via FANS on a donate-what-you-want basis here. Proceeds benefit the Colorectal Cancer Alliance (CCA) and the Association of Black Gastroenterologists and Hepatologists (ABGH). Various limited-edition merch items from the show including James Casey t-shirts, hoodies, beanies, enamel pins, and posters are available now via the Relix Marketplace. A pair of custom Grassroots hats designed by Casey himself are also available to order via the Grassroots website.
We love you, James.
Peter Shapiro Intro, Ari Fink Intro, Louis Cato Preview – James Casey Celebration of Life – 11/6/23
Animus Rexx – James Casey Celebration of Life – Full Set – 11/6/23
Trey Anastasio Band & Friends – James Casey Celebration of Life – Full Set – 11/6/23
[Video: Chad Sclove]
Nikki Glaspie & Friends – “I Don’t Know What You Came To Do” James Casey Celebration of Life – 11/6/23