Neal Casal fans, friends, family and fellow music lovers gathered at Port Chester, New York’s Capitol Theater on Sept. 25 for a tribute concert to the late guitarist, singer and songwriter, who took his life on August 26.
Casal’s absence is still a fresh wound for the scene barely a month after his death and reminders of just how recently the tragedy occurred were felt throughout the night, as a slideshow curated by Justin Kreutzmann, son of the Grateful Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann, cycled through images taken of and by Casal, himself a noted photographer.
Surfboards bookended the stage where an empty stool sat adorned by a rose and a jacket belonging to Casal alongside one of his guitars. A moment of silence started the night, after which words written by Casal, and understood to be from his suicide note, were displayed on a screen. “Have an epic party for me and play my favorite records, and remember all of the good times we had, the images, music, and waves we caught,” read the quote.
Under the banner “There’s a Reward: A Celebration of the Life and Music of Neal Casal,” the evening also featured speeches from those who knew Casal, including Robbi Robb, who drew inspiration from prayer, and the event’s main emcee, Gary Waldman. A longtime friend and business associate of Casal’s, Waldman recounted anecdotes including how they met and bonded.
“People give Jersey a bad rap, but I’ll tell you this, Neal and I loved New Jersey,” said Waldman. “Neal grew up a couple towns over from where I worked at a record store and in 1987, this long-haired guy came into the record store. It wasn’t Neal. It was a guy named Steve, the bass player in Neal’s high school band, Exire.” Cheers erupted from the crowd as a throwback photo of Casal in his hair-metal phase appeared.
The night unfolded in chronological order as Casal’s mentor, Davis Jaynes, was first to perform. He was followed by standout performances of various Casal covers: Leslie Mendelson played “Feel No Pain” on piano; Steve Earle provided a harmonica solo at the end of “Highway Butterfly;” and Railroad Earth’s Todd Sheaffer honored Casal by covering “Real Country Dark” and “December.”
Just a few days before Casal took his life, he had performed at Lockn’ Festival in Arrington, Virginia, with Circles Around the Sun, the band he formed for the Fare Thee Well concerts four years ago. Peter Shapiro, the through-line as promoter of the 2015 shows, a co-founder of Lockn’ and the owner of Capitol Theater, revealed a tribute that would last beyond the night: a stage at Lockn’ named after Casal.
“Just to show how Neal’s life is a circle around the sun, they played two shows in the forest in Virginia,” Shapiro began. “The first one they did in the summer [of] 2016. The next time they came to visit us was just a month ago on August 22, 2019. They ended up playing the first gig they had ever played with Neal [at Fare Thee Well] and the last gig. That is the true meaning of a circle around the sun — they started it and ended it in that way. It’s always going to be Jerry’s Forest. From now on, that is Neal’s stage.”
The second half of the show powered through technical difficulties to get back to the music, offering a sort of sonic Wikipedia of Casal’s pedigreed history, including Beachwood Sparks, the early 2000s band in which Casal was a member, and Circles Around The Sun, with Eric Krasno filling in on guitar. The funky groove was well-paired with a tie-dyed slideshow and impressive lighting accompaniment, bringing a kaleidoscope of colors to the room.
Circles played one of the longest sets without saying much from the stage, perhaps thinking that the empty chair said it all. Last to perform were the Chris Robinson Brotherhood, another band of which Casal was a longtime member, who performed covers like Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young” and “Loving Cup” by The Rolling Stones. For the finale, all the players reconvened on stage for a group performance of Elvis Presley’s “Farther Along.”
“It felt like a true loss,” said Relix Magazine assistant editor Raffaela Kenny-Cincotta. “I think every single person here truly cared about Neal. I think that made everybody stop and think about calling a friend who seemed a little distant or telling people that you care about them.”
To drive that point home, the concert also served as a benefit for MusiCares, the Recording Academy nonprofit that seeks to help those in the music industry struggling with mental health or addiction issues.