All Things Neal Casal: One of America's Most Intriguing Guitarists October 19, 2018 12:46
Interview by Jordan Kirkland: Live & Listen
Photos by Craig Baird: Home Team Photography
When I finally decided to put Live & Listen into motion four years ago, one of my many goals was to create a valuable platform for up-and-coming bands. Through this, I would attempt to line up a variety of artist interviews, in an attempt to learn more about the music that I love. Thanks to a tremendous amount of love and support, this outlet has grown into what it is today.
In July of 2015, I musically peaked at Soldier Field in Chicago. This would be the closest experience I would ever have to a weekend with the Grateful Dead. The core four members would join forces with my favorite current musician, Trey Anastasio, as well as Bruce Hornsby and Jeff Chimenti. Entering the weekend, there was a notable buzz about the music and archival Dead video footage being played. It had a strong Garcia sound to it, but no one knew exactly who was behind it.
The world then learned that the band would be called Circles Around The Sun, which was led by guitarist Neal Casal. The response to this music was so strong, that the band officially took form in the summer of 2016 and have been pushing musical boundaries ever since. Earlier this week, I caught up with Neal to discuss this whole experience, his previous solo work, touring with the likes of Ryan Adams, Chris Robinson Brotherhood, Hard Working Americans, and much more.
Let's start off with some background info. How did you get started playing music? When did this become a reality as a career?
Neal: I started playing music when I was twelve. I started playing guitar and was inspired by The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, Led Zeppelin, and all the great English blues/rock bands. I joined some bands in middle school and high school. I was just obsessed with music, you know? It just took over my mind at a very early age. I couldn't stop thinking about it. It became a real obsession.
I guess it was around by junior year in high school when it comes time to speak with your guidance counselor to start deciding what your future is going to be. While all the other kids were deciding on colleges, I was deciding that I was going to live this gypsy life and make a life in music somehow. I set out to do it, and I did.
I'd say that was a pretty good decision.
Neal: Well, it was a good decision in many ways. In other ways, it's a pretty scary, unstable decision. There are a lot of things that people have at my age that I don't. It can be a risky thing. If you don't get really successful in music, it can be a tough road. There's no guaranteed stability or security in it. Those things get important as you get older, so it's hard to navigate if you haven't set those things up.
I don't regret my life in music though. I've certainly accomplished a lot. I've made people happy through my music and made friends all over the world. I made a lot of the dreams I had come true, so that part is cool (laughs).
I think that's a common misconception among music fans. They start seeing their favorite bands playing bigger venues and festivals, and they just assume that you're living the "rock star life."
Neal: That's true. Mine hasn't really been a rock star life. Granted, I've gotten to travel the world and see a lot of things that other people haven't. Some of the other life building events that people go though...I haven't had some of those things. It gets harder as you get older. I've definitely had an amazing life in music. That's for sure. I've gotten to make so many records, tour, take photographs, write songs, meet new friends, and all of that.
That's great. I know you touched on this topic just now, and you've probably answered this one many times, but I can't help but ask about your influences. Your overall tone and style of play is amongst my favorites.
Neal: Oh it's just an amalgamation of all the guitar players that I love. Starting with all all four of the Rolling Stones' guitarists: Mick Taylor, Keith Richards, Ron Wood, and Brian Jones. Then you have Neil Young, Steven Stills, Buffalo Springfield, Spirit, The Byrds, and all the California country / psychedelic rock stuff. Ry Cooder is a great slide player. Peter Green is another guy. The Grateful Dead is certainly in there too.
I don't know. I guess just listening to so much music for so many years, and having it all kind of synthesize into hopefully my own. I think you can hear pretty clearly the different influences that I carry with me. Maybe the combination that I've put together is a little bit different than others. I haven't invented anything as a guitar player. I've definitely put together a kit of influences that is pretty user friendly.
As a lead player, Mick Taylor was probably my main influence. There are all the great rhythm players, even the AC/DC guitar players. There's all the weird stuff, like the experimental sonic youth style music. Glenn Branca and all of those avant garde players that I wouldn't compare myself with. I do take some of that on, as far as atmospherics and damaged / chaotic sounds. I could go on and on. It's a long list.
I can imagine. Correct me if I'm wrong on this, but you released six solo albums between 1994 and 2000, right?
Neal: Yeah. That sounds right.
I was wondering how this experience leading your own project early on prepare you for your future work with Ryan Adams, Chris Robinson, Hard Working Americans, and others?
Neal: Well those were years spent learning to be a songwriter, you know? At the end of that day, no matter what kind of player you are, every player needs a song to sing or play. Those were the years I was learning to sing, write songs, make records, and play guitar in a record making fashion. Not really as some type of virtuoso instrumentalist, which I'm not and never will be. Learning to use the guitar as a songwriting and record making tool, rather than a focus of instrumental prowess or experimentation.
At that time in the 90's, I wasn't jamming so much as I was really trying to make good records and write good, concise songs. Three to four minute songs. How to really write a tune. How to compose and make good sounding records with good ensemble playing. Yeah, singing as well. Harmony singing, lead singing, all of it.
Those are the foundation of all of my skills really. I took those, of course, into playing with Ryan (Adams), because Ryan is a songwriter first and foremost. That's really his thing. He's a great singer, great guitar player, but ultimately, he will be known for his songs. I stepped right in and had the ability to play his songs and sing harmonies with him. My record making experience prior to that all came in handy.
With Chris (Robinson), it was the same thing. He's a singer and a songwriter. That's what sets us apart from some of the other jam bands out there. We're really a song and harmony band. All that stuff from the 90's, it keeps informing me now. It informed everything I did with the Hardworking Americans as well. Same thing. Todd Snider is a songwriter. I know how to play with singer songwriters, because I learned to be one when I was younger.
It's strong foundations to work from. I've become sort of known as this guitar player over the last few years. Being a part of this scene with Phil (Lesh), CRB, and Circles Around The Sun, but I'm not a virtuoso guitar player. I never have been. I was never known as one. I can't compete or keep up with a lot of these people I've gotten to play with and come to know. Jimmy Herring, Scott Metzger, and all of these really great guitar players on this scene. I don't consider myself one of them really.
I'm a good guitar player for sure, but I come from a different background. More of a songwriting and singing background. Just being in a band, you know? Rock bands, really.
Well let's talk about Circles Around the Sun. I was lucky enough to attend Fare Thee Well in Chicago. There was already a buzz about the set break music by the time we got to Soldier Field. How did this all come together?
Neal: It came together over a series of events that took a few years to gestate. It came about through a guy named Justin Kreutzmann, who is Bill Kreutzmann's son. Bill is obviously the drummer for the Grateful Dead. Justin is a great filmmaker, and he was put in charge of the visuals for the "Fare Thee Well" shows. This meant that on each side of the stage there were those big screens. They showed archival Grateful Dead footage and psychedelic montages going down to keep the audience entertained while the band wasn't playing.
I was asked by Justin to create an instrumental soundtrack to go along with those images. The reason he asked me is because we first met back in 2012. There was a film project called Move Me Brightly. It was done for what would have been Jerry Garcia's 70th birthday. That was done at Bob Weir's TRI Studios. Justin and I became friends at that point, and a few years later, he asked me to score Bob Weir's film, The Other One.
That went well, so Justin and I had been building on this relationship for a few years. He asked me to step in and do the music for the Fare Thee Well Shows. So, I put a band together. I asked Adam (MacDougall) from CRB, as well as Dan Horne and Mark Levy. We had very little time to prepare. We had no time to prepare, actually. We didn't write anything ahead of time. We just stepped into the studio and did everything on the spot.
We just tried to imagine the kind of music that we would want to hear if we were at a Grateful Dead show and hanging out at intermission. So we just imagined it and made it up on the spot. Just improvising a bunch of music over the course of two days. We got very lucky in the fact that people liked it.
Amazing. From what I recall, that ultimately led to the band's formal announcement and first performance at LOCKN', right?
Neal: Our first performance was actually at LOCKN' the following year (2016). But yes, when we did the music, there was no band name or intention of releasing it. It was music made for the purpose of those shows. People got really into it, and then Rhino approached us about releasing it. It all took on a life of it's own, because people liked it so much. We had no idea that people would like it at all. We didn't know that it would ever get that type of reaction. It was a huge shock to us, as a matter of fact. I wasn't sure if anyone would like it or think it was any good at all. We weren't sure if it was good. The fact that people flipped out the way that they did was an amazing surprise and a great bit of serendipity, you know?
The band released it's second album, Let it Wander, back in August. I've read that you guys feel like it was more like your first release. Can you elaborate on that a little more?
Neal: When we formed the group for the project, we had no idea if it would work. Would we have any chemistry? There wasn't much thought of it going past that Fare Thee Well project. As it turned out, we really sounded and felt like a band. There was really no reason to let it end there. That first batch of recordings went so well. Then we started doing shows, and those felt good too. We started coming up with song ideas and sound checks, and it just seemed natural that we should try it again and make another record.
As good as the first record was, it was actually really rushed. We did it in two days, and we didn't really mix it properly. It felt like just the beginning of something, so we decided to see if we could take it further and make an even better record. We went back to the same studio, wrote a bunch of material, and did it.
Honestly, I think it is superior to the first record. I really do. I think we furthered our ideas, refined them, and honed them in a lot better. I think this is a much more focused record, and sonically, it's a lot better as well. The first one was really just introduction to what we could do. We want to take it as far as we can. Take expectations and smash them through the roof, you know?
Watch the music video for Circles Around The Sun's "One for Chuck" here:
Absolutely. So you've continued to be one of the busiest guitarists in the scene, leading this band while also touring with CRB and formerly Hard Working Americans. I know there are other projects in there as well. Where do you begin when balancing your schedule?
Neal: It's gotten a lot easier, because now it's just CRB and Circles. Hard Working Americans made it really hard for a few years. That made it tough, because CRB and HWA were both playing a lot of the same venues and touring all of the time. That was really difficult, but now that that has ended, at least for now, CRB and Circles are much easier to manage. Having that third band in there made it tough.
Two bands...I can handle that. I'm in another band called The Skiffle Players with Dan Horn, the bassist for Circles. Skiffle Players are an amazing group, but we don't play a whole lot, so it's not that hard to navigate.
Well, just to finish up, soon you'll be gearing up for a big January run with Greensky Bluegrass. How valuable will this exposure be for you guys? What else can we expect from CATS in 2019?
Neal: Well, we're going to have a very short set each night. 45-50 minutes each night, which will be interesting. Circles music, as you know, takes a long time to unfold, so it's going to be interesting to see how we can do our thing within a really condensed amount of time. We've never had to do that before, but we're very excited to play with that band and get in front of their audiences. Hopefully, it will be a good fit. We're honored that they're taking us out. Hopefully, we can make us some new fans and generate some momentum for more shows and recordings.
I'd like to get back in the studio and make another Circles record next year. I just want to keep pushing this thing as far as it can go. I think we have a lot of music in us, and I love the idea of being in an instrumental band that can just weave these sonic tapestries of people. After years of being just a singer songwriter, it's really interesting and challenging for me to push myself in this direction.
Mark, Dan, and Adam are such amazing players. It's just a great opportunity to make these interesting sounds for people. They either pay attention or forget about it. Use it as background or foreground music. Maybe go to sleep to it, or wake up to it. Whatever you feel like doing. It's cool music. I just find it to be an interesting concept. There is something very satisfying about our sound. It lets me play guitar that I never have before. Those guys support me in a way that I've never experienced, and I hope I do the same for them. It's a cool group. We're just gonna keep going until we've said all that we have to say, I guess.
I couldn't agree more. I loved everything from the first release, and I'm getting much more familiar with the new album. It's great to hear more about the band's vision, because there is a tremendous amount of potential.
Neal: Yeah, there is a lot potential. There's some Krautrock influences that we didn't really have at all the first time. Creating music for the specific purpose of getting people to dance is really cool. I like having a direction in that way. We're not out there to give people our message through lyrics. It's only a rhythmic and energetic message. I'm really into that. It's like sign language or something. It's a different way of communicating.
That's really interesting. I've never thought about it from that perspective.
Neal: It's a way of speaking. It's a different language. You're not doing it through singing or words. You're doing it through this other means. It's cool to see if you can get through to people in that way. I like it. At Circles shows, when things are really going right, everyone gets into this sway. I can look at the audience and see them moving back and forth. If we can sustain that motion for an entire show, then we have succeeded. There's just a feeling about it that when it's working, there's this particular motion that I notice in a crowd. It's a really positive feeling. It's something that I want to do more of.
I can imagine that's a pretty rewarding feeling.
Neal: It's cool, for sure.
Watch the music video for Circles Around The Sun's "Gilbert's Groove" here:
Looking Back On LOCKN': A Weekend In Review September 4, 2016 14:20
Now that I have had nearly seven full days to digest what I witnessed last weekend, it only seems appropriate to attempt to explain my LOCKN' experience. This was something I planned to do earlier in the week, before coming down with a mild case of what many have called the "wook flu." My friends and I set out out on the journey from Alabama to Virginia just before sunrise on Thursday, August 25th, slightly apprehensive and anxious about a four day festival in the heat of summer. With arguably the best lineup of bands I've ever seen (extra stess on "arguably," as it's all relative), excitement was certainly abound. Luckily, some friends hooked us up with a few extra forest camping passes, which proved to be a total game changer. We managed to set up camp just in time to head to the concert grounds for Vulfpeck's opening set, which served as a perfect intro to the epic weekend ahead.
Vulfpeck has been one of the hottest bands in the festival scene for nearly two years, and their live show speaks for itself. What you see is what you get with Vulfpeck. They keep it as simple as possible, playing real instruments with essentially no effects. This making for a a very raw, natural outcome. This set was highlighted by several of their hits, such as "Funky Duck," "1612," and "Put It In My Back Pocket," as well as a cover of Steely Dan's "Peg" that nearly lit the crowd on fire. As they finished up, the massive crowd had its first glimpse at the infamous "turntable stage," which Umphrey's McGee took full advantage of. Within three seconds of Vulfpeck stopping, Umphreys cranked into full effect with "Nipple Trix" as the stage rotated, which quickly segued into one of my personal favorites, "1348."
The set continued with "Attachments" and "The Triple Wide," one of the bands biggest jam vehicles. The "2x2" > "Speak Up" > "2x2" sequence moved swiftly into a raging take on "Puppet String," ultimately leading into "Roctopus." At this time, Brendan Bayliss called upon none other than Gene Ween, who performed an entire set with Umphrey's last summer known as "God Boner." Being that ole Gene has an uncanny resemblance to Billy Joel these days, the decision to cover Joel's "The Stranger" was well received. With little time to spare, the band then segued back into "Puppet String," before "All In Time" closed things out in powerful fashion.
Next to take the stage was Ween, who was slated for the evening's headlining set. It was clear early on that many in attendance did not know what to expect from these guys; myself included. While I've casually listened to Ween over the last fifteen years, I never dove in deep, and I'd never had a chance to see them live. While their were some very bizarre moments, I loved every minute of it. These guys managed to pump out 26 total songs, including many I was familiar with such as "Transdermal Celebration," "Mister, Would You Please Help My Pony," "How High Can You Fly," "Beacon Light, "Baby Bitch," "Boys Club," "Fat Lenny," "Push The Little Daisies," "Ocean Man," and "Zoloft." We've made it a full week since this set, and I'm still talkin' bout "Boys Club." I can't help but think that Dean and Gene must be somehow related to Trey Parker and Matt Stone (creators of South Park), and last weekend further affirmed that assumption.
After a truly exhausting two hours with Ween, there was just enough time for the first of many cool down sessions back at the car. These sessions were critical, as we had a chance to turn up the A/C, charge the cell phone, and collect our completely scattered thoughts. There wasn't much time to waste though, as Joe Russo's Almost Dead was up next at the Blue Ridge Bowl. This was arguably my most highly anticipated performance of the weekend. Like many others, I had been dying to see this band since its inception three years ago, but they don't tour extensively. So, this was my first opportunity to catch their set, and I'll just say this. JRAD uses the catalog of the Grateful Dead as a launching pad into something that is totally its own.
I was absolutely blown away by my first JRAD experience, which kicked off with "Space" > "Truckin'," before moving into an absolute monster "St. Stephen." "The Eleven" and "Brown Eyed Women" would follow, before "The Wheel" opened up another insane improv section. The set continued with powerful takes on "Estimated Prophet," "Tennessee Jed," and "Viola Lee Blues," and a beautiful take on "He's Gone" would follow. Right around 3:15 AM, the band busted into "Terrapin Station," and you better believe we got the full Terrapin Suite. This was easily the best late night set I'd experienced at this point, and one of the best Dead sets I've ever witnessed. Keep in mind that I'm a child of the late 80's.
While it was already nearly 90 degrees upon waking up on Friday, the lineup ahead of us demanded our full effort and attention. Turkuaz was scheduled for a 12:30 PM power funk lunch session, and that's something you just can't miss out on. This is one of the most entertaining, high-energy bands in the festival circuit, and they've only scratched the surface. These guys are incredibly tight, and the level of choreography that goes into each set can't go unnoticed. The set ultimately closed with an amazing rendition of The Band's "Shape I'm In," to which the stage rotated with Vulfpeck in full effect.
As much as I hated to walk away from Vulfpeck, I knew that my next move was arguably my most critical decision of the weekend, and the "Infinity Downs" area had a live video stream of the main stage. I made my way over to the almighty Vida-Flo RV, which treated me to an incredibly pleasant experience. The fine folks at Vida-Flo spent their majority of time at LOCKN' helping others rehydrate and obtain a much needed second wind to fight through the outrageously hot and humid weekend. "The LOCKN' Special" put me exactly where I needed to be, and I was able to enjoy Vulfpeck's covers of "Boogie On Reggae Woman" and "Tell Me Somethin' Good" during the procress. I can't say enough about Jamey, Katie, and the rest of the Vida-Flo team for the service they provided to so many at LOCKN'.
The remainder of Friday afternoon was highlighted by performances from White Denim, Charles Bradley & His Extraordinaires, and Peter Wolf (of the J Geils Band). With my new found energy and hydration, I made it back to the concert grounds and enjoyed a seriously rockin' set from White Denim, who I'd been looking forward to seeing for several years. While I definitely haven't given White Denim the attention they deserve over the years, I have loved everything I've heard from these guys. Songs like "Ha Ha Ha Ha (Yeah)" and "At Night In Dreams" have been staples in my regular rotation for some time, and the entire Corsica Lemonade album is simply brilliant.
One lifesaving factor to my LOCKN' experience that I have failed to mention thus far is the hospitality that we experienced at Starr Hill Brewery tent, which was located at the back of the concert grounds. Starr Hill, a craft brewery based in Crozet, VA, is the official beer sponsor of LOCKN', and I'm not sure how we would've survived without it. Fortunately, a longtime childhood friend works for the brewery and granted us access to the tent the entire weekend. Shade, fans with mist, cool beer, and most importantly water, were made available to all of Starr Hill's patrons this weekend, as well as a distant view of the main stage. The luxury of watching White Denim and part of Charles Bradley's set from the Starr Hill tent was a perfect way to continue the afternoon. Star Hill Brewery probably saved our lives last weekend.
As the sun began to set, Ween returned to the stage for it's second set of the weekend. While this set was closer to 80-90 minutes, it was an absolute scorcher. One of my top highlights from the weekend came in the form of "Roses Are Free" > "Your Party" > "Bananas and Blow" > "Voodoo Lady." Several other classics, including "Mutilated Lips," "Spinal Meningitis," "Piss Up A Rope," and "Buckingham Green" helped make this set one that I'll never forget.
The stage was now set for a moment that so many were waiting for. Phish was slated for two full sets as the Friday night headliner. While the 90-minute break in music felt like an eternity, this was soon forgotten as the band took the stage and ripped into the opening notes of "Wilson." Despite a few miscues in "Wilson," as well as the intro to "Down With Disease," this set was off to a really hot start. "Free" and "Wolfman's Brother" would follow, before we were treated to a "Tube" which featured that extended jam that has been somewhat rare in recent years. Next up was "555," which even went further than it typically does with a next outtro jam.
"It's Ice" was probably the highlight of the first set for me, as it's just one of those songs that I tend to miss by one show. "Wingsuit," which may be the most underrated song in the Phish catalog, slowed the pace and ultimately led into one of the most beautiful jams of the weekend. The transition into "Simple" pumped a new life into the massive crowd, and just when you thought the set was over, the lights shifted to one particular mic stand, indicating an acapella performance. I was lucky enough to witness the debut of David Bowie's "Space Oddity" at Wrigley Field in June, and I was elated to hear it again on Friday night. There's nothing quite like their spin on that classic tune.
After a brief intermission, Trey wasted no time busting into "Punch You In The Eye," and he didn't let off the gas once. "Blaze On" and "Fuego" were perfectly executed, and the "Ghost" that followed was easily the biggest jam of the night. The segue into "Bathtub Gin" was seemless, and "Backwards Down The Number Line" provided an amazing, nostalgic sing-a-long, as it always does. Any set that ends with "You Enjoy Myself" is a treat, and this was the case on Friday. The trampolines came out, and Trey even gave us a little break dancing expo during Mike's solo. The "Ass Handed" tease during the eventual vocal jam was icing on the cake. You can only do so much with an encore after "YEM," and this was a night where "Character Zero" was the perfect choice. Just like that, Phish's first LOCKN' set was over, and we couldn't have asked for much more.
I won't get too repetitive when discussing the second late night set from JRAD, but goodness gracious, it was amazing. Just the fact that our evening included Ween > Phish > JRAD was hard to believe. "Good Lovin" kicked off the set, and "Shakedown Street," "China Cat Sunflower," and "I Know You Rider" would follow. The band welcomed Nicole Adkins to the stage to add a little Donna Jean flare to "Dancin' In The Streets," "The Music Never Stopped," and "Turn On Your Lovelight." I was not familiar with Adkins prior to this set, but wow...she's got some serious pipes. Her involvement in this set was something that will always stand out when thinking back on this one. Fortunately, she stuck around for harmony vocals on the "Franklin's Tower," "Thowing Stones," and "Not Fade Away" which closed out night two at LOCKN'. Joe Russo's ability to command and lead this band from behind the drum kit is absolutely remarkable, and I've never seen anything like it. We are talking about one of the most talented drummers on the planet though, so I guess no one should be surprised.
We were now halfway through our LOCKN' experience, and waking up knowing that there were two more days of this madness was hard to believe. Just like every other day, the lineup was slam packed full of "must see" bands, starting with Keller Williams' Grateful Grass at the Blue Ridge Bowl, or at least what was left of it from the two nights of JRAD destruction. The Grateful Grass experience features a rotating cast of bluegrass musicians. It's gotten to the point that Keller looks at the Dead's catalog as it's own genre, similar to jazz, as musicians can simply jump on stage with very little experience playing with one another and just roll with it. I'd highly recommend reading Live Music Daily's interview with Keller from LOCKN', where he goes in depth on the evolution of the Grateful Grass concept.
Moon Taxi was first up on the main stage, and they had the farm rocking at an early hour. It's been a true pleasure watching this band progress from the college bar scene to touring across the country playing many of the most prestigious venues. Their ability to find a balance between jam and mainstream rock is brilliant, and I can only imagine the dividends that it is paying. Twiddle was up next, and I can't say enough about this band. I feel like I haven't stopped listening to Twiddle all summer, and I've been fortunate to attend two summer festivals (LOCKN' and The Werk Out) which featured two sets of Twiddle. "Jamflowman" and "When It Rains It Pours" gave me my two favorite Twiddle originals, and Keller Williams' sit-in on "Best Feeling" was likely the top spontaneous collaboration of the weekend.
Thanks to the champions at SiriusXM JamOn, nearly every major set at LOCKN' was broadcasted live, which you wouldn't think would impact those of us at the festival. You have to take a break at some point though, especially amidst the extreme heat and humidity last weekend. While I didn't watch the Galactic set with Lee Oskar, I was able to listen live from my car, which was a major luxury. Galactic has been an anchor in the jam/festival scene for as long as I can remember, and they delivered once again. Hard Working Americans were next on stage, providing me with my first chance to see this super group in person.
While I've been a huge Widespread Panic fan for 15+ years, my eyes were glued to Neal Casal's guitar playing. This guy is one of the best in the business, and easily one of the "hardest working" musicians around. He was easily the MVP of the weekend, performing with HWA, Chris Robinson Brotherhood, Phil Lesh & Friends, and Circles Around The Sun. Todd Snider's unique stage presence and style was a treat to watch, and it was a lot of fun watching Dave Schools and Duane Trucks jamming together with these guys.
Saturday's Phil & Friends lineup was easily one of the most hyped moments of the weekend, and how could it not have been? Who would have ever thought we would see Phil Lesh, Page McConnell, Jon Fishman, Joe Russo, Anders Osborne, and The Infamous Stringdusters play an entire set together? How about adding Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi for two songs ("Mr Charlie" > "Sugaree")? That is absolutely ridiculous, and yes, it really happened. Seeing the stage rotate with this cast, while they busted into "Scarlet Begonias," was a memory I will always cherish. I know I'll be listening to their renditions of "Dire Wolf," "Uncle John's Band," "Shakedown Street," and "Terrapin Station" (even if it wasn't the full Terrapin Suite) for the rest of my life.
Most festivals would have probably featured that type of set as the night's headliner, but we weren't even close to that point. The world class Tedeschi Trucks Band was up next for a super soulful ride into the evening. Each night as the sun would go down, the crowd was able to breathe a little easier without the brutal sun beating down on us, and Tedeschi Trucks was a perfect way to ease into the night. Joe Cocker's "The Letter", "Keep On Growing," and "Let Me Get By" rounded out this killer performance, setting the stage for the set that everyone is still talking about.
My Morning Jacket is no stranger to the festival scene, and it's no secret that they are one of the greatest rock-and-roll bands of our era. That being said, I don't think anyone realized how dynamic this headlining set would be. MMJ started in familiar territory with "Victory Dance," which flowed perfectly into a sequence of "Compound Fracture" > "Off The Record." Next up was "Steam Engine," before a cover of Burt Bacharch's "What The World Needs Now" that had some true magic to it. "I'm Amazed," "Spring," "Phone Went West, and Bob Marley's "Could You Be Loved" would follow and keep this set alive. "Magheeta" would precede another epic moment, as James led the band through a well executed cover of Prince's "Purple Rain." The set's closing sequence of "Wordless Chorus" > "Touch Me I'm Going To Scream (Pt.2)," David Bowie's "Rebel, Rebel" and "One Big Holiday" couldn't have been written up any better. MMJ was headlining the jam scene's biggest festival of the summer, and they dialed up a list of songs that reflected that. The hype surrounding this set is absolutely justified, and anyone who had already seen this band perform wasn't surprised in the least. Is there a bigger modern rock star than Jim James?
Saturday's late night at Blue Ridge Bowl provided a much needed dose of funk as Lettuce took control of the party. It's always a special occasion when Nigel Hall (keys/vocals) is on stage, adding an extra vocal element and opening up so many different options for this insanely talented group. Prior to the set, drummer Adam Deitch and guitarist Adam “Shmeeans” Smirnoff promised fans the most psychedelic set of their career, and they delivered just that. This set was specially crafted for LOCKN', and you can't help but tip your cap to these guys for such an appropriate approach.
For many, Sunday started off with a much needed church session, and luckily, Keller Williams was slated for his annual "Grateful Gospel" set. Joining Keller on lead guitar was none other than John Kadlecick, who's known for co-founding Dark Star Orchestra in 1997, as well as joining Furthur in 2009. The female backing vocalists truly added a church-like gospel feel throughout the set, but I highly recommending watching the performance of "We Bid You Goodnight" below. I can't imagine a better way to start your day at a festival than 90-minutes of Keller's Grateful Gospel.
I was unable to make it to the main stage for the afternoon's first two performers, The Dharma Initiative and Doobie Decibel System, but there was definitely a buzz about both performances. As amazing as this year's lineup was, it can be painful when deciding which sets you have to take a break during. Fortunately, our campsite was within listening distance for even these sets that weren't streamed live via JamOn. I knew I couldn't miss Twiddle's encore performance. It's amazing to watch this band continue to flourish and reel in new fans on the biggest stage. Sunday's set started off with "Blunderbus, "Daydream Farmer," and "Beehop," before "Lost In The Cold" seemed to have the entire farm singing in unison. "Carte Candlestick" and "Frankenfoote" ultimately closed out the short set, as the band was again slotted for just 60-minutes. While most any band would kill for 60-minutes at LOCKN', you just want so much more once this band gets going. I'll be shocked if we don't see these guys back on Oak Ridge Farm in 2017.
Every music festival could use a nice dose of reggae, and who better to provide that than the band who taught us about this genre, The Wailers. These seasoned vets took the stage and laid down literally every Bob Marley / Wailers hit that you've ever heard. This music always generates a notable energy amongst a crowd, but it was something really special on Sunday afternoon. You've got to love the planning and attention to detail with the placement of each band on this lineup. There is absolutely a science to it, and Peter Shapiro knows it as well as anyone in the game.
Chris Robinson Brotherhood took the stage fairly late in the afternoon, and they had their work cut out for them. Not only were they slated for 90-minutes of originals, but they would then join Phil Lesh for the weekend's second set of Phil & Friends. The CRB set was highlighted by originals such as "Leave My Guitar Alone," "Forever As The Moon," "New Cannonball Rag," and "Ain't Hard But Fair," while Jackie Moore's "Precious, Precious" and Bob Dylan's "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" rounded things out. The band's latest hit single, "Narcissistic and Soaking Wet" would ultimately close things out.
While Saturday's Phil & Friends lineup featured the sexier lineup on paper, I personally thought Sunday's set had the true feel of a Dead set. Perhaps it was presence of weekend MVP Neal Casal, who just knows how to play it like Jerry. I've always been a fan of Robinson's vocals, and he really delivered for this one. Just as the stage began to rotate, Phil, the boys from CRB, and Gary Clark Jr. began ripping into "Samson & Delilah." "Good Morning Little School Girl" and "Wang Dang Doodle" were perfect choices, and the decision to play The Dead's version of Otis Redding's "Hard To Handle" was one of my favorite moments of the weekend. This song might be the most commonly covered song in rock-and-roll, but hearing Chris Robinson sing it to The Dead's tempo was a fucking treat. Do yourself a favor and watch the video footage below and see for yourself. "Fire On The Mountain" and "New Speedway Boogie" opened things up for yet another monster "St. Stephen," and "The Wheel" wasn't going to slow down. There aren't many songs in the Dead catalog better suited for a party than "Turn On Your Lovelight" (Bobby Bland), and Robinson crushed every note. It was refreshing and reassuring to see Phil having such a great time, surrounded by so many world class musicians at LOCKN'
Gary Clark Jr. might have been the most intriguing act on the lineup entering the weekend. While I've heard "Bright Lights" and "Don't Owe You a Thing" as many times as I can remember on JamOn, I just haven't given this guy the attention he deserves. I've been well aware of his reputation and status across the scene in general, but I was way past due for a Gary Clark Jr. set. He and his band came out swinging as they opened with "Bright Lights," and swiftly moved into "Travis County," "Next Door Neighbor Blues," "Cold Blooded," and "BYOB." The crowd continued filling in, and the set eventually closed out with "Don't Owe You A Thing," "You Saved Me," and "Shake. The sound that this guy has is out of this world. There are moments where My Morning Jacket, Kings of Leon, Jimi Hendrix, and White Denim all come to mind, except that Clark compliments the heavy riffs with one of the most soulful voices you've ever heard.
The stage was now set for one final time, and you couldn't help but stand up and look around at the scene that awaited. The energy at Oak Ridge Farm on Sunday night was impalpable, with 30,000+ fans riding high on four days of music with two more sets of Phish to come. Each day as the sun would set, we experienced significant release as the temperature seemed to instantly drop fifteen degrees, and this held true once again on Sunday. Phish took the stage right around 8:30 PM, and "Sample In A Jar" was first up to the plate. Page then cued the now infamous vocal tracking of "Martian Monster," much to the approval of the LOCKN' faithful. I really wish they would jam this one out more than they do now, and it feels like more appropriate in the second set (Ex: Atlanta, GA - July 31st, 2015), they're typically throwing it in early and keeping it fairly tamed.
The first set stayed super hot with "Axilla" and "The Moma Dance," before "Halley's Comet" provided that absurd, silly sing-a-long that very few are capable of pulling off. We were then given a double-dose of the band's 1986 cassette tape release The White Tape with "AC/DC Bag" > "Fuck Your Face." The sequence of "Fuck Your Face" > "46 Days" is about as heavy rock-and-roll as you can ask for from Phish. "The Line" was a bit of a curveball, as it tends to be, but "Limb By Limb," "Possum," and "First Tube" would follow and wrap up a very, very solid first yet.
There were high expectations for a wave of heavy hitters in set two, and they were exceeded, as usual. "Carini" lit a fire across the farm and flowed nicely into the "Chalkdust Torture" that you knew was coming as some point. "Twist" seems to be one of the jams of 2016, and I don't think anyone is complaining. I've been a sucker for "Light" since the release of Joy in 2009, as this tune has become one of the bigger jam vehicles of the Phish 3.0 era. The "Light" jam ultimately landed into "Tweezer," prompting a mildly concerning glow stick war on Oak Ridge Farm. Led Zeppelin's "No Quarter" was next, prompting McConnell to guide us through the classic cover. I'm assuming the guy next to me promised his friends that he would do a headstand if Phish was to play "No Quarter," because he went ballistic during the opening notes, and his friends proceeded to lift his feet to the sky as he hit the deck. Truly remarkable.
From here, we went into full "space jam" mode, as Fishman dropped into the opening beat of "Also Sprach Zarathustra," aka "2001 (Space Odyssey)." That's a dance party that never gets old. It was apparently Fishman's moment, as he then dropped into the opening notes of "Harry Hood," which seemed to be a likely place for the set to end. As I've said before...just when you think you know, this band proves you wrong. They tacked on a "Tweezer Reprise" just for safe measure and made sure that this crowd was still on it's toes. After a brief exit, the band returned and broke into The Rolling Stones' "Loving Cup" and closed out the festival with everyone screaming "What a beautiful buzz!" While it might not have been a shocking encore selection, it felt extremely appropriate.
Sitting down and reliving this unforgettable experience over the past few days has allowed me to fully comprehend the remarkable journey we took just a week ago. It's easy to get caught up in the fatigue, anxiety, and pressure to "get back into a normal" rhythm after these huge musical weekends, but it's equally important to reflect and cherish the moment. As much fun as it was, it certainly wasn't easy. I've never dealt with that type of heat, humidity, and pure exhaustion without access to "going inside." In the long run, that makes the experience that much more unique, and it definitely makes for better story-telling. There were twelve different bands on this lineup that I have travelled to see play on their own, and some on multiple occasions. Top that off with the fact that this marked my 30th show with my favorite band: Phish. What's left to say? My ability to continue embarking on these musical adventures with so many of the world's greatest friends is an element of life that I'll never take for granted. Until next time, LOCKN'...
Special thanks to Keith Griner of Phierce Photography for capturing this weekend for us and allowing us to share it with you all.
LOCKN' Festival Announces Free Live Video Stream Schedule August 24, 2016 15:07
For those unable to make it to this weekend's LOCKN' Festival, we have good news just for you. The festival has announced a free livestream this weekend sponsored by FANS.com and powered by nugs.tv and Qello Concerts, featuring sets by all of your favorite LOCKN' performers, including Phish (x2), My Morning Jacket, Ween (x2), Phil Lesh & Friends, Gary Clark Jr., Vulfpeck, Umphrey's McGee, Tedeschi Trucks Band, Joe Russo's Almost Dead (x2), Chris Robinson Brotherhood, Twiddle, Hard Working Americans, Charles Bradley & His Extraordinaires, and many more. For information on where to watch, visit the LOCKN' website, and view the full livestream schedule below.
LOCKN' FESTIVAL 2016 LIVESTREAM SCHEDULE:
All times are EDT, and subject to change.
Vulfpeck – 7:30pm
Umphrey’s McGee – 8:30pm
Ween – 10:00pm
Joe Russo’s Almost Dead – 1:00am
Donna The Buffalo – 11:00am
Moogatu – 12:00pm
Turkuaz – 12:30pm
Vulfpeck – 1:30pm
White Denim – 2:30pm
Charles Bradley & His Extraordinaires – 3:30pm
Peter Wolf – 4:45pm
Ween – 6:00pm
Phish – 8:30pm
Joe Russo’s Almost Dead – 1:00am
Keller Williams’ Grateful Grass– 10:30am
DJ Williams Projekt – 12:00pm
Moon Taxi – 12:30pm
Twiddle – 1:30pm
Galactic w/ Lee Oskar – 2:40pm
Hard Working Americans – 4:10pm
Brandi Carlile – 5:40pm
Phil Lesh & Friends – 6:40pm
Tedeschi Trucks Band – 8:20pm
My Morning Jacket– 10:20pm
Lettuce – 1:00am
Keller Williams’ Grateful Gospel – 10:30am
The Dharma Initiative – 12:00pm
Doobie Decibel System – 12:30pm
Twiddle – 1:00pm
The Wailers – 2:00pm
Chris Robinson Brotherhood – 3:00pm
Phil Lesh & Friends – 4:45pm
Gary Clark Jr. – 6:15pm
Phish – 8:30pm
Members of Phish, Joe Russo, & More To Join Phil Lesh at Lockn' July 21, 2016 12:21
Just in case the lineup for Lockn' Festival wasn't enticing enough already, the festival's co-creator Peter Shapiro has revealed new details which have created quite the buzz. Phil Lesh & Friends, the festival's most recent addition, has featured an endless amount of amazing talent over the years, and the Lockn' editions will be no different.
Joining Lesh on Saturday, August 27th will be Page McConnell and Jon Fishman of Phish, Joe Russo, and the Infamous Stringdusters. Phil & Friends is also slated to perform on Sunday, August 28th, when Lesh will perform with the Chris Robinson Brotherhood and Gary Clark Jr.
When asked about the status of Trey Anastasio, Shapiro had the following to say:
"While I did directly ask about it, I did not get a direct response. “A lot of special guests and intricacies are being finalized behind the scenes still,” Shapiro said. I creepily paused for too long to be comfortable hoping he would spill his guts, but the guy is a pro. We’ll just have to see what happens in a couple weeks in Arrington."
In regards to the correlation of last year's Fare Thee Well shows (which Shapiro organized) and this year's Lockn' lineup, Shapiro added:
“The people who love the Dead. There were shows at every Chicago venue of bands playing Dead music, artists sold their grateful art outside the shows,…everyone kind of created new life out of it. It just is such a big community, full of great people. Bringing everyone together is what we’re gonna do again at LOCKN’. That, along with the integration of Trey, Phish, and the Dead world…it’s just never been done at a festival like this. That whole thing from last summer’s gonna happen again, a year later. Phish is headlining two nights, and are surrounded by tons of Dead music. In fact, this will be the first time since Fare Thee Well that members from Phish will play with members from the Dead, and we’re really excited about that too.”
One can only imagine where Anastasio and Phish bassist Mike Gordon will work their way into the mix. Perhaps a cameo with Joe Russo's Almost Dead? We'll have to wait till late August and find out for ourselves.
Check out the daily schedule for Lockn' 2016 here: