The Art Of The Sit-In | Neal Casal


Words By: Chad Berndtson

Welcome to another edition of The Art of the Sit-In, where we mix it up with the scene’s most adventurous players and hear some stories from the road. For more, check out our recent interviews with George Porter Jr., Jason Hann, Jason Crosby, Vince Herman, Scott Metzger and many more.

Neal Casal’s resume is an eye-popper, even by musical journeyman standards. Between Beachwood Sparks, Hazy Malaze and countless one-offs and collaborations, to the best-known version of Ryan Adams and the Cardinals, consistent appearances with Phil Lesh & Friends, and the current supergroup Hard Working Americans, he’s also released a dozen solo albums going back to the mid-1990s, and maintains a love of photography that’s seen his work exhibited worldwide and in publications like Rolling Stone, MOJO and USA Today.

But it’s the Chris Robinson Brotherhood, for which Casal signed on as lead guitarist during the band’s heady formation in 2011, that’s giving Casal some of the most fulfilling experiences of his career –and it’s clear after just a few minutes of chatting it’s where both his head and his heart are invested these days.

Casal was kind enough to talk CRB –which just welcomed a new drummer, Tony Leone, and is about to start a lengthy tour –and also let us pick his brain on a few other topics.

JAMBASE: What do you remember about those first shows the CRB played? Everyone involved has mentioned how organic it all felt.

NEAL CASAL: Yes, it did feel that way. I think the most striking feature about those early times in the band was Chris’ bravery –his adventurousness and willingness to try this new, untested project out in front of an audience when it really wasn’t all together yet. It was just this big, grand experiment and a lot of courage was needed –the most courageous among us was Chris. This was an untested band, these were untested songs, and luckily it all clicked.

We only rehearsed about eight times before playing our first L.A. show, in front of like 700 to 800 people. We started out playing two-set, three-hour shows right from the beginning, full-on, Grateful Dead-inspired performances with very little rehearsal and a long way to go. You can think of it like we were child stars, growing up right in front of people. Luckily audiences were patient enough to hang around. It doesn’t happen like that all the time.

But we wisely started the band on that California residency so we could start with a more local following –that was a wise and innovative idea on Chris’ part. The point was that we clicked. The musicianship was no problem, but no matter how good you are, it makes no difference if you don’t click. It takes time for a band to become a band, but growing up in public made everything stronger and more authentic.

And us in relationship to Chris, we weren’t just his road band –this band of stooges where it’s a well-known singer with a bunch of hired guns. We were loading our own gear into the van for the first few months there and that was interesting because this definitely isn’t the first band for any of us and it had been a while. But we believed in it so much we were willing to do it. I think it made us all kind of feel like we were in our first band again.

JAMBASE: When did you first meet Chris?

NC: I first met Chris, and I doubt he would remember this, but I first met him in 1993. We have a mutual friend who owns a bar in New York City. Our scenes didn’t really cross, and at that time Chris was at the height of rock success and I was a struggling little songwriter. But I remember meeting him all the way back then and I was a big fan of his and we talked music for a few minutes. I didn’t meet him again really until 2001, when a band I was playing in, the Beachwood Sparks went out with the Crowes…

[Photo by Sterling Munksgard]

JAMBASE: I remember that tour…

NC: Yep, for sure! After that we ran into each other a lot in L.A. and New York, and our scenes were more similar. We talked a lot about records and guitars and books and everything else. When it was time for him to get the CRB going, I think he had made a couple of calls but he came to me and that’s when everything really kicked into high gear.

JAMBASE: Tony Leone is the most recent recruit to the band. You’ve played with Tony in a few contexts, from the Rambles at Levon Helm’s barn to Phil Lesh & Friends. But why is he the right fit for where CRB is now?

NC: Tony has everything we need. He’s such an incredibly well-rounded musician and a talent on many fronts: drumming, mandolin playing, singing. As a drummer, he has the material we’re looking for. He has a legitimate jazz background –not that we’re jazz players, we’re certainly not, but he has the ability to integrate that background into a psychedelic rock setting, you know? The way that so many of the great ‘60s drummers had that swing, you know? That’s changed over the decades –the swing aspect of rock ‘n’ roll drumming has mostly disappeared, I feel like. But you didn’t work at one point if you couldn’t swing.

It’s not that we’re trying to harken back to old times, but this is an aesthetic and qualities that we really feel are worth retaining. Tony feels that way too. He understands R&B, he understands the deep blues records we’re into, he can play rock ‘n’ roll, he can mix all of that into a coherent and artistically thoughtful picture. I think the other thing is that he can play drums so quietly but without ever losing momentum or power.

Another bonus with Tony is that he understands the Grateful Dead. He was an East Coast Deadhead kid who went to plenty of shows in the ‘80s. He knows those songs –he gets what they’re about. We’re not trying to be some kind of Dead band –we have our own identity — but it is a touchstone for us, for sure, and an influence, for sure. That’s why he gets the call from Phil –he gets the conversation and can be in it. You can hear the integration without it being imitation.

JAMBASE: You’ve played with Phil and been in that integration, too. Were you big into the Dead?

NC: We all know the territory, but trust me, there are people who know it way better than me. Every single show or nuance, I don’t know that, and there’s still plenty of stuff I’ve never even heard. I know the general terrain pretty well and that’s as far as I go. I think when the opportunity comes up to play with Phil, and I know Tony and Chris think this way, too, it’s all about bringing the essence forth. It’s not in recreating the details and the turn of every screw –you have the records and the Dead shows for that. It’s about carrying an essence forward.

JAMBASE: Given that you guys seemed to all be on the same page about what CRB was and the organic way it came together, was it a surprise to you that George Sluppick left the band?

NC: It’s a transition no matter what it is. No matter how good Tony is, it’ll just take some time to develop. Tony is a new accent to this language we created with George — it’ll be the same language but with a different accent.

George is one of the most naturally talented musicians any of us has ever worked with –he’s a real strong voice on his instrument which is what makes him so unique, he doesn’t sound like other drummers. And when you spend a lot of time with someone for four years, it’s not easy to see them go, of course. I’m close friends with George; we go forward as good friends. Without getting too far into the inner circle details –which I find get deluded and misunderstood too easily when written about, and you see what a one-sided story can be when written about thanks to what’s happened with the Black Crowes –it’ll be a tough transition because George built this band with us. But we’re all going to remain friends.

JAMBASE: Is the Black Crowes “thing” and the drama around the recent statements of the founding members distracting?

NC: No, not at all. If anything, it strengthens our resolve. If our identity was shaky and we were standing on thin ice as CRB, then maybe it would be distracting. But while everyone has been moaning for something else they want, we’ve been working our asses off for four years straight. Chris has honestly ignored all of it and written three awesome records with great songs. This band is only gaining strength.

At the beginning of this band, it was funny, there were plenty of Crowes fans who would show up and come up and stand right in front of me and Muddy with their arms folded and with this “show it to me” vibe. We just kind of laughed. We went on our merry way and did our work. And hey man, I’m a hardcore Black Crowes fan, too. I can make a claim that many of the hardcore Crowes fans can’t make, which is that I saw the Black Crowes in Atlanta in March 1990, maybe February, opening for Junkyard. Their record hadn’t even been out a month.

I’m doing my best for Chris and my best work with Chris. I’m a fan of Rich’s, too, man. There’s no problem here. I think Black Crowes fans should accept that both of those guys are still out there making music and doing what makes them happy. And hey, you try being in a band for that long, man –see what that’s like. It ain’t easy. All of those people who say they’re so mad at Chris right now, I bet not a whole lot of them have been in the same band for 25 years and been through what those guys went through.

But it all does come out in the wash. You make good music, that’s what gets remembered. So we’re going to keep playing, and it’s not easy to do in the large shadow cast by the Crowes, but we have our own legacy getting made here. Chris isn’t afraid of that –the guy just does his work like he wants to.

JAMBASE: So what’s on tap for CRB next? Will you stay on the road?

NC: We’re going to keep hitting it hard –continue to write songs this year. I’m sure by the end of the year we’ll have gathered enough material for a new record.

Click here to continue reading the rest of The Art Of The Sit-In with Neal Casal

JAMBASE: I want to talk a little about other projects you are and have been involved in, Neal. First off, your solo records. What amazes me is that throughout your career you’ve been releasing solo albums. Do you think you’ll keep returning to that format?

NC: I think it’ll happen again one day, but I’m very busy with the CRB. Somehow I’ve found this second life as a guitar player, which surprises me as much as anyone else. So my solo work is taking a back seat. Making a solo record was something I worked so hard on for many years and put so much time and attention and effort into. Not a lot of people cared but there were enough people who cared to let me keep doing it. All of those aspirations –the depths you go into to become a solo musician –all of that’s still there, it’s my foundation. But if I do it again it’ll be a little smaller, more private. Maybe I’ll just record a little and press up a bunch of vinyl or something. But I also get to write with Chris and for the CRB, so it’s not like I’m not flexing that muscle.

[Photo by Andrew Quist]

JAMBASE: There are other bands I have to ask you about and one of them you mentioned already. Beachwood Sparks. It sounded like there was some reunion activity on the way again.

NC: The people who really ask about what Beachwood Sparks is up to, I think, are really into the original principal members. It’d be kind of wrong for me to speak for them, but we did play a show recently and it was as epic as usual with them. There’s such a cool magic that happens with that group whether I’m in it or not. I’m really an honorary member. I played on their last record which is as good as anything they ever did, I think. I think that band will always have some kind of life.

JAMBASE: Here’s another one for you: Hazy Malaze. People dug that, however short the life span. Is it ever something you’d revisit?

NC: Wow. Hazy Malaze. Jeff Hill and Dan Fadel -my relationship with those guys runs so deep that it’s hard to even put it into words. They played on my last three solo records, too. But that was magic, and I smile because it’s another deeply familiar crew of people. I’ve known Dan for more than 25 years –we’re from the same town –and Jeff, too. Jeff, you know, is also really good friends with Tony Leone –they played with Shooter [Jennings] together. All of these capillaries really kind of run forever, all these connections tie together.

I mean, Hazy Malaze could happen at any moment. Who knows? The big obstacle is geographical. They’re in New York, I live in California, but we always will get together, because when we get together, it feels like home. The beginning of that band was one of the most inspired creative periods of my life. I wrote some cool rock songs and it was a great break from what I did as a singer-songwriter. We opened for Robert Randolph & the Family Band during their first golden period, I remember, and it was this wild tour where everyone was free to do what they wanted. We had a blast, man.

JAMBASE: I caught that tour in Boston. I remember it well, and you guys jamming with the Family Band.

NC: Oh yeah. Some of those nights at the Paradise or whatever –that was the time when the Family Band were just blowing rooms to pieces. We’d start a few fires ourselves. We were kind of living together and being wild and young and making music.

JAMBASE: Neal, you’ve spoken lovingly of your time with the Cardinals. Will it ever return? Do you talk with Ryan?

NC: I’m still friends with Ryan, sure. I can’t see the band returning –I don’t see it returning. It’s obvious Ryan has moved on to a new band and a new era for himself, as have the rest of us. Someone sent me a couple of recent interviews where Ryan was speaking in quite negative terms about the Cardinals, so I don’t see it being revisited based on that. But it was a deep era when we played together. There aren’t many songwriters like Ryan. I stand by the guy’s talent no matter what’s been said or whatever happens. He’s definitely one of the most inspiring people I’ve ever worked with –I’ve literally seen the guy write classic songs in 10 minutes. As for the other people in that band, we’re all still so close. It was a great band and the stuff we did will stand the test of time. Those were great records and shows.

JAMBASE: Let me next bring up Phil Lesh & Friends. You know this territory but do you have a favorite part of working with Phil when you get the call?

NC: One of my greatest Phil moments happened recently actually. At the Capitol Theatre, me and Chris and Adam [Macdougall] played a few shows with Krasno and Russo. We walked in to the first soundcheck and I noticed that Phil had a brand new bass –a beautiful instrument, I think it was an Alembic. It’s a gorgeous instrument. I walked up to him and said, hey, Phil, that’s a beautiful new bass, and we discussed the electronics and capabilities it has for a couple of minutes. And then finally Phil says, ‘Well, Neal. I’m halfway there.’ Meaning, he’s about halfway to where he wants his sound to be after all these years. That just floored me. The guy is in his 70s and he’s still searching for the sound, to quote his book. When he said that to me with a gleam in his eye, it came from a very real place.

JAMBASE: That does sound like a very Phil thing to say.

NC: That just about knocked me off my feet. As a musician, or anyone, if you’re not inspired by that, I don’t know what’s going to get you on the edge of your chair. Phil is completely mindblowing. I remember when Terrapin Crossroads was just getting going and hanging out there. I didn’t know the Dead catalog nearly as well as other people seemed to think I did. It’s one thing to know those songs as a fan, and it’s quite another to play them. I never played in a Dead band or anything like that, so to go in for one of those Rambles and play like 60 songs and learn them in two days –that’s a harrowing experience, man. When you step into the middle of your first Slipknot! you better hold on for dear life. No one is slowing down for you. If you don’t know the chords you’re pretty much just going to get steamrolled. [Laughs] I was holding on for dear life those first few Rambles. But to just witness the power and stamina and energy Phil brings to it…I have never seen him phone anything in. Even at rehearsal he is going for it.

It did give me an entirely different perspective on the music, playing it with one of the founders. It changed me a lot. The songwriting was the star of the Grateful Dead show. They had these songs that have two, three bridges in them and so much depth. I brought as many of those lessons as I could to [the CRB’s] Phosphorescent Harvest. I think a lot of the songs there are more densely packed with ideas and melodies and that comes in part from working with Phil and also with Bob, who I played with at the Move Me Brightly thing. But Phil first and foremost. That guy is deep.

JAMBASE: Coming around to another band you’ve spent a lot of time with, Neal, will we’ll continue to hear from the Hard Working Americans?

NC: It is safe to say that, yes. CRB is my first priority but I get so much from working with those guys. Being around Todd Snider is an event in itself –to connect with a songwriter at the level that guy is. He’s a genuine lyricist. And Dave [Schools] has become one of my closest friends. I didn’t know much about Widespread Panic before, or the world they’ve created. Duane Trucks, same thing –I think we’re looking at one of the best up-and-coming drummers in the country and he’s just at the beginning of his career. Same thing with Jesse Aycock, my pal. We’re going to do more, sure, and do our best to weave it in with everything else.

[Photo by Jeremy Williams]

JAMBASE: Folks would point out you remain an active photographer. How do you keep up with that in the midst of all these musical pursuits?

NC: That goes so perfectly. A camera’s much smaller than a guitar –all I have to do is keep one nearby. It’s not as hard as you might think, it’s only the editing and tracking down of files and negatives that take time. As far as doing it, it makes my whole life in music that much better –it seems like it would be a crime not to document all that goes on around me. That started young. Jim Marshall was a hero of mine, and Robert Frank and his images for Exile on Main Street. When I was a kid, seeing that stuff did something to me. I believe in the medium so much that even as it’s being brutalized by Instagram and all this stuff I’ll continue to believe in it and keep a foundation in it. I’ll always take pictures. It’s all part of one long song for me.

JAMBASE: I always close this column asking for a sit-in story, so I’d appreciate yours. Something recent come to mind?

NC: There are so many but I’ll tell you my most recent one, which was a few nights ago. Derek Trucks asked me to sit in with the Tedeschi Trucks Band. To put it mildly, that came right out of the blue. I just didn’t see that one coming –that Derek Trucks would ask me to stand next to him on their stage and play guitar. That’s a devastating band he and Susan have put together. I’ve been a little acquainted with Derek and of course Chris knows him and we’ve all been at festivals together but I also revere the guy so much that I’m generally keeping some distance –he’s a hero of mine! But we played two shows with them and he asked me toward the end of the first night to do it, so I had a day to prepare for it. It’s a daunting thing to play next to Derek and also Susan, who is a great guitar player herself. That was a story, man. That might be the best live band on the planet right now.

JAMBASE: What’s going through your mind during a sit-in situation like that?

NC: With sit-ins it’s always a crapshoot. It might sound like shit to you, or so unfamiliar that you just can’t get your bearings. No matter what it goes by so fast and maybe you ended up not as effective as you thought or that you missed an opportunity. On the other hand, the newness of the situation is totally inspiring. And I was lucky this time around because I could hear everything perfectly. I was plugged into one of Derek’s amazing, super-reverb amps that sound incredible, and I’m like, don’t run a race with Derek, just occupy the space and do your own thing.

Sometimes when you play with someone like Derek it’s tempting to try to get up to their level and go for it. But it’s better to complement what the band is doing. When you do that, you retain your own voice and it’s much better for the music, not some guitar war. I don’t play that way. So I felt like I made a contribution and they were all so welcoming and accommodating. All smiles, no pressure. They make it real easy for a visiting musician.