Sunday, January 5, 2020


A deceptively simple song, with a picked acoustic guitar and a rudimentary organ, a repetitive whisper, barely crooning over the top, yet just enough going on to nail a mood, an almost intrusive melancholy. No middle eight, no instrumental flourish to embroider the two notes in the key. Of course the words are busy, not that it is that easy to make them out. One senses the writer maybe not in such a good place. (A blink at the lyrics supports that suspicion, albeit without that much clarity.)
Perhaps then, a couple of decades after I first heard that song above, Basement Dream, from parent album, Basement Dreams, the news that the performer had taken his own life came less of a shock. Well, still a shock, less of a surprise.

Not that this was necessarily his usual style or format, his name being more of a worthy gun for hire, a name to add kudos to the work of another. I certainly took a second look and a greater interest if I saw his name on a record sleeve, playing, usually, guitar, often piano and, surprisingly, quite often the  photo on the front.

These Days with You, 'Fade Away, Diamond Time', solo, 1995)

Neal Casal first hit my attention when UK rock mag Mojo awarded him the Americana Album of the year, 1998, for Basement Dreams. Americana is a big deal in the UK and there are many US musicians who seem much bigger names in that field over here than in their homeland. I'm thinking Willy Vlautin, both with Richmond Fontaine and, now, the Delines, I'm thinking ex-Green on Redder, Chuck Prophet, people like that. The UK also had, at least then, a strong library sector, where, as well as books, so too could you borrow vinyl records and, later still, CDs. Many a fledgling collector of music would expand their shelves handsomely, home-taping the crop of their local library, most hi-fis easily able to record straight from vinyl onto cassette. Sure, home taping was as illegal as it ever is, but, somehow, the libraries were in on the act, extracting a small fee for the lend. An urban myth suggested this went toward the royalties of the artist, easing any pang of conscience. (The urban truth gets, um, murky, but isn't too complicated, but, worry not, RIAA, I binned all my cassettes years ago, when I ceased having a player or the space to play or keep 'em.) Anyhoo, my first copy of Basement Dreams was exactly that, a copy, enlivening many a car journey, that being where the cassette ruled in those days.

Debris (Ronnie Lane/Faces cover), 'Return in Kind', solo, 2005

Liking the cut of his jib, I dug around his name and sought new works. A covers selection, Return in Kind, was especially good, my obsession with cover versions already beginning to hit a stride. Another artist heralded by Mojo, was Ryan Adams, and I snapped up his breakthrough albums, his apparent erraticism then putting me off later product. But when I read that Casal had become his right hand man in backing band, the Cardinals, I was back in like Flynn. His instrumental prowess lifted the sometimes leaden tendencies of Adams into loftier territory. Furthermore, when the Adams' helmed Cardinals became the chosen backing band for Willie Nelson's 2007 recording, Songbird, this should have been perfection. (Actually it wasn't, disappointing me with a somewhat hamstrung over-production, but where it was good, it was very, very good, and usually when Casal was to the fore.)

Everybody Knows, 'Easy Tiger', Ryan Adams & the Cardinals, 2007

Songbird, 'Songbird', Willie Nelson & the Cardinals, 2007

Another initially well regarded musician was Chris Robinson, especially with Black Crowes, until he fell out with his brother. Resultant band, the Chris Robinson Brotherhood, could have been just another stoner jam band, but, again, Casal was at hand to give some stabilising muscle.

If You Had a Heart to Break, 'Barefoot in the Head', Chris Robinson Brotherhood, 2017

Alongside this he also formed an integral part of Hard Working Americans, a so-called supergroup of players filling their downtime productively by making yet more music. Co-fronted by Casal and Todd Snider, the band also included members of Widespread Panic.

Opening Statement, 'Rest in Chaos', Hard Working Americans, 2016

The last I heard of him he was in the line-up of yet another band of loose affiliates from elsewhere, the Skiffle Players, this time with Cass McCombs and members of Beachwood Sparks.

Always, 'Skifflin'', The Skiffle Players, 2016

As if this weren't enough, he managed twelve solo offerings, and performed on innumerable sessions, for Lucinda Williams and Tift Merritt amongst others. And I haven't even mentioned Circles Around the Sun, the band he formed when commissioned to write the between sets music for the residual Grateful Dead 2015 Fare Thee Well tour and 50 year celebrations, that request arising from his participation in, yes, as well, a Phil Lesh & Friends touring project.

He seems to have been a well loved individual, given the eulogies made by friends and bandmates. Capable of extended and joyous electric solos, as well as reflexly capable rhythm control, and a deft hand on an acoustic to boot, familiar in most of the modern american genres that bridge the gap between the Stones and the Dead. Which, as the youngster he was, obsessed with the music of both, leaves no small legacy and big gap. He also had the voice of a tarnished choirboy, capable both of soaring beauty and understated lyrical dialogue, a gifted craftsman of songs.

So what makes someone take their own life, as he did, on August 26 last year? I cannot imagine and wouldn't want to, but I would guess, if labelled 'gentle' and 'introspective', as he usually was, depression will have been the diagnosis, suicide sadly no stranger to musical circles these past few years.

I know I have overloaded the clips, but here is a a full stream of his memorial concert. However, I should warn it is very long indeed, five hours....

Where to start?

Godspeed, Neal.

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