Two days after Neal Casal, guitarist, singer and itinerant member of many bands, took his own life on 26 August, the Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir tweeted the familiar skull logo from the band’s famous Steal Your Face album—only this one was modified to propagate suicide prevention. It said “Save Your Face", “You Are Never Alone And Suicide is Never the Answer", and it had toll-free numbers that anyone feeling suicidal could call.

Earlier, Weir had joined several other musicians, including Chris Robinson, Ryan Adams, Shooter Jennings and Jason Isbell, in expressing their grief and paying glowing tributes to Casal, who was 50 when he died.

A gifted musician, Casal had a remarkable career. He released 12 solo albums, played lead guitar in bands that included The Cardinals (Adams’ backing band), the Chris Robinson Brotherhood, and GospelbeacH, and was a founding member of the southern rock supergroup Hard Working Americans. His solo albums are an amalgam of alternative country, indie rock and blues rock, and they stand out for his guitar virtuosity as well as his ability to write and sing lyrics that evoke melodic poetry. His work in the other bands showcases his talents as a guitarist even better.

What follows will undoubtedly sound blasphemous to die-hard Deadheads but for me what stood out during the series of 50th-anniversary reunion Fare Thee Well concerts by the remaining members of The Grateful Dead in 2015 was not the sets that the band played but the interludes—the music that was played during the intermission, accompanied by trippy visuals created by Justin Kreutzmann, the film-maker son of the Dead’s drummer, Bill Kreutzmann. Those instrumental and totally improvisational musical interludes, created by Circles Around The Sun, a band led by Casal, comprised 300 minutes of jams that drew inspiration from the Dead’s idyllic years of free-form jamming during the 1970s, and from the time that they used to be a sort of house band for Ken Kesey’s famed acid tests in California.

Audiences at the five reunion concerts were so appreciative of the interlude music that the record company, Rhino, decided to compile them in a double-CD album, which is readily available. Spontaneous, psychedelic, and featuring only guitars, keyboards and drums, the music on those discs, titled Interludes For The Dead, is so tranquil and trippy that you don’t realize that these were actually created to be fillers at the Dead’s shows. They evoke The Grateful Dead’s heydays, yet they don’t sound at all as if they are derived from that famous band’s tunes. But most of all, they offer a window to Casal’s brilliance as a guitarist, composer and musician.

Casal began his career as a solo artist. His first few records in the mid-1990s recreated sounds from the 1970s—country rock and folk music in the Woodstock-era style—wrapped around intelligent, literate lyrics. His debut album, Fade Away Diamond Time (1995), is probably the best example of his solo music—it is tight, melodic and warm. Casal continued his solo career even as he began playing in other bands. He has played on five of Ryan Adams And the Cardinals’ albums, and as many as 12 albums by the Chris Robinson Brotherhood, including their latest, Servants Of The Sun, released this year.

In 2013, Casal teamed up with Widespread Panic’s bassist, Dave Schools, alt-country and Americana singer Todd Snider, drummer Duane Trucks (younger brother of the guitarist Derek Trucks) and keyboardist Chad Staehly to form Hard Working Americans. The band’s eponymous debut album has 11 songs that deal with the travails of the working class, and while it showcases the talent of all the band members, Casal’s guitar work stands out.

Hard Working Americans sound even better live. They have two live albums, The First Waltz (2014) and We’re All In This Together (2017), on which their jam band credentials are amply demonstrated.

Casal had other achievements to his credit. For the 2004 cop comedy film Starsky & Hutch, he was the voice coach for Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn. He has himself appeared in a film, Country Strong, with Gwyneth Paltrow. But Casal’s legacy will remain that of a guitar hero—not one of the in-your-face, larger-than-life kind but a virtuoso who earned the admiration and respect of his peers.

Yet he was a modest man. When the Rolling Stone magazine asked him in April what he thought now that people saw him as a guitar hero, Casal replied: “Well, it just makes me laugh, really. 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."

Two days before he decided to end his life, Casal appeared with Circles Around The Sun at the Lockn’ Festival in Virginia, where he played a set and was joined by Weir, Oteil Burbridge (Dead & Company’s bassist) and guitarist Duane Betts. His scorching solo is preserved on a YouTube video—a must-watch segment that runs for a little more than 4 minutes. RIP, Neal Casal.

First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.

Twitter - @sanjoynarayan

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