I remember the illumination of Chicago’s Solider Field as vividly as if it were yesterday. A hazy cloud wafted over the 75,000 faithful as we all settled in to celebrate a three-night Windy City run of the Grateful Dead’s 50th anniversary Fare Thee Well spectacle.
The band, which included Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart alongside Trey Anastasio, Bruce Hornsby and Jeff Chimenti had wrapped up their first set of the weekend and as the house lights came up, we were unexpectedly transported into what I would consider the most distinct set break and thereafter series of breaks I have ever witnessed.
As is customary during these pauses, one makes the usual rounds of hitting the restrooms, perhaps grabbing another beverage and a snack or visiting friends throughout the venue. But not this time.
A whimsy guitar tone hit my ear. Then the keys. The low end of the bass. The beat. What on earth was I hearing? It was reminiscent yet entirely raw at the same time. It had depth, not too much polish and an aura of mystery. As I would come to learn it was the music of Circles Around The Sun, spearheaded by guitarist and singer/songwriter, Neal Casal.
Casal had been solicited by Justin Kreutzmann, a filmmaker and the son of drummer Bill Kreutzmann, to write several hours of original material to accompany graphics that would be shown on the big screens during set breaks for the Dead’s Santa Clara and Chicago shows. A daunting task indeed.
With time at a premium and nothing prepared ahead of time, Casal went into the studio with keyboard player Adam MacDougall, bassist Dan Horne and drummer Mark Levy and churned out some of the grooviest shit of his career. As he writes in the liner notes to the eventual commercial release of ‘Interludes For The Dead,’ “The idea was to not only show reverence for the past but to ultimately move it forward. If there’s anything to be learned from the Grateful Dead, it is to dissolve your boundaries, push your limits, and discover your own voice in this world. Search for the sound, press ever forward.”
With playful titles like “Hallucinate A Solution,” a phrase Casal actually picked up while playing with Dead bassist Phil Lesh, “Farewell Franklins,” “Kasey’s Bones” and “Space Wheel,” several of which that extend into the 20+ minute territory, I could not help but be an awe of how spectacular these jam sessions translated to a set break, which more times than not is a mediocre experience filled with scrolling through your phone and waiting in lines that hardly ever seem to move.
This sonic escapade was not pushed to the background, but rather, was made a crucial, centerstage piece to the larger production of the Fare Thee Well experience. A hypnotizing encounter to say the least. With each passing night of the three-night run I would sit in anticipation as the band left the stage for what was to a come: a trippy, psychedelic musical experience unto itself of which I had no idea if I would ever hear again. I desparately had to soak up each and every moment I could with it.
As I sit here writing this, more than a year has gone by since the untimely passing of Neal Casal. I consider myself blessed and very fortunate to not only have been witness to the aforementioned set break adventures but his live performances with the Chris Robinson Brotherhood, Hard Working Americans and Phil Lesh & Friends I was able to take in.
In a 2015 Relix Magazine interview on his creation of ‘Interludes For The Dead,’ Casal remarked, “This wasn’t about advancing a personal agenda. It was just literally— without beating the overused term into the ground—giving back.” Casal gave back and then some. He forged memories for myself and countless other Deadheads who attended the Fare Thee Well concerts and those who have come into contact with his vast body of work. Let us only hope we can continue to give back to each other as much as Neal Casal gave us. We’re all the better for it.
Below you can listen to the Fare Thee Well set break music from Neal Casal and Circles Around The Sun.