Beloved singer, guitarist and sideman supreme was only 50
When I heard the news about Neal Casal, it hit me with enough force that I had to take a moment to let it sink in before I could face scrolling through the seemingly endless tributes to the guitarist, singer, songwriter, and photographer.
The most fitting tribute, in some ways, I thought, was to play Ryan Adams’ “Goodnight, Rose” and let the chilling harmonies and soulful guitar wash over me, the lyrics carrying a weight I hadn’t felt before: “Put your troubles behind you and go on to bed / Let go of the worry / There’s so much nobody understands.”
Born in New Jersey but the founder and member of bands scattered across the country, Casal’s powerful playing and Americana sensibilities can be heard on everything from Ryan Adams’ backing band The Cardinals to blues-rock band Chris Robinson Brotherhood and Willie Nelson’s Songbird. He released his critically-acclaimed debut record, Fade Away Diamond Time, in 1994, and went on to release eleven more solo albums over the course of a three-decade career.
AUDIO: Neal Casal Fade Away Diamond Time (1994)
After discovering the Rolling Stones and The Grateful Dead as a teenager, Casal dove into music with an enthusiasm that bordered on obsession. “Those groups opened my eyes and ears to the best music, literature, film and art of all kinds,” he told Brooklyn Bowl in a 2016 interview. “I bought every record and book that they ever spoke about in their interviews and tried to follow their instructions on how to dig in and do good work.”
Casal’s love for the Grateful Dead came full circle in 2015, when The Grateful Dead reunited for their 50th-anniversary Fare Thee Well tour. Casal was asked by video director Justin Kreutzmann to record more than five hours of original jams to be played over the trippy visuals Kreutzmann was creating for the Fare Thee Well intermissions. Casal called on his Chris Robinson Brotherhood bandmate, keyboardist Adam MacDougal, bassist Dan Horne, and drummer Mark Levy to round out the lineup of a group known as Circles Around the Sun.
The quartet went on to write and record more than 300 minutes of free-form jams that seemed to have been recalled from some forgotten, unheard tapes of the Dead, circa 1970. After the audience was presented with the music, their reaction was overwhelming, and the swirling, psychedelic jams were compiled on a double album titled Interludes For The Dead.
VIDEO: Circles Around The Sun at Gardner’s Farm, Stephentown, NY June 6, 2019
By then, Casal’s reputation as a modern guitar legend was inarguable, but Casal himself found it humorous. “It makes me laugh,” he told Rolling Stone in an interview only months before he took his own life. “The honest truth is I only have three or four decent licks as a guitar player. There’s some amount of smoke and mirrors there. But it’s just how you use what you know, and maybe if anybody can learn anything from me, it’s that — how to make very little go a long way.”
“I can’t believe I’m having to say goodbye to my friend and my brother. It’s almost too painful,” his longtime friend, collaborator, and bandmate Chris Robinson said in a statement. “When I think about the songs we’ve written, the shows we’ve played, and all the laughs and great times we shared, it’s almost too unbearable to know you’re gone. All of us in this rock & roll life have had to say goodbye to too many people too soon. I can only wish that you’ve found your peace returning to the wisdom of the universe. I miss you so much already, Neal. I’ll see you again, someday past the sunset.”
Neal Casal died by suicide on August 26, 2019. “It’s with great sadness that we tell you our brother Neal Casal has passed away,” his team said in a statement released the next morning. “As so many of you know, Neal was a gentle, introspective, deeply soulful human being who lived his life through artistry and kindness. His family, friends and fans will always remember him for the light that he brought to the world. Rest easy Neal, we love you.”
VIDEO: Neal Casal at Rockpalast 2004