A wonderful and lovingly compiled tribute to the late Neal Casal.
Neal Casal’s death, by his own hand, in 2019, reverberated throughout the musical community which Americana UK inhabits. Never a household name, never lauded with awards (aside perhaps from Mojo magazine proclaiming his 1998 album, ‘Basement Dreams’ as their Americana album of the year), Casal nevertheless was a highly regarded songwriter, musician, guitarist and photographer, and by all accounts, a warm and engaging human being. ‘Highway Butterfly’, with more than three hours of music from an amazing array of musicians, and assembled by friends without any corporate assistance, is testament to the esteem in which he is held.
Casal released 14 albums under his own name between 1995 and 2011 and was a valued member of several bands including Ryan Adams and the Cardinals, The Chris Robinson Brotherhood, Hazy Malaze, Beachwood Sparks and GospelbeacH and Hard Working Americans. Circles Around the Sun, the instrumental group he assembled initially to record the music for hour-long intermissions during a reformed Grateful Dead’s 50th Anniversary tour, introduced him to a new audience. In addition, he appears on a myriad of albums, on guitar or vocals, ranging from Willie Nelson to Danny & The Champions Of The World. A consummate musician, Casal must have invariably made his way into any of our readers’ record collection at some point but he also created a circle of friends who have gathered together for this incredibly impressive tribute album. Casal’s long-term manager, Gary Waldman, had initially thought he might garner around 14 songs but, as the wheels rolled on and news of the recordings went out, he was inundated with offers from musicians who either knew or were touched by Casal, resulting in 41 songs spread over three CDs or five vinyl discs. A successful Kickstarter campaign (in further evidence of the love for Casal, fans contributed $155,000, although there’s a rueful comment from Waldman that this was exponentially bigger than anything Casal had ever had to spend on his own records) was the go ahead for this handsome project to go ahead.
It has to be said that this sprawling project is hugely successful in gathering together the many threads in which Casal participated. His albums contained songs which could sound as if they were recorded in Laurel Canyon back in the 1970s along with darker grooves which recalled Neil Young guitar workouts. His collaborations found him expounding sun speckled California jangle rock and Grateful Dead like jams, along with a wealth of other styles. Indeed, there’s no end to his interconnected musical community and that community repays their debt to him in spades with a roll call which includes Hiss Golden Messenger, Beachwood Sparks & GospelbeacH, Steve Earle & The Dukes, Jonathan Wilson, Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Vetiver, Shooter Jennings, J Mascis, Cass McCombs, Johnathan Rice, Billy Strings, Aaron Lee Tasjan, Jaime Wyatt, Dori Freeman and so many others.
In all there are 41 artists, backed by 130 musicians, packed into the set, all of them touched at one point or another by Casal’s artistry and enthusiasm. They interpret Casal all in their own way which allows the album a fine sense of diversity and, although there are ebbs and flows, there’s not one song here which one might be tempted to skip on a further listen. All of the songs are loved and, in turn, deserve to be loved by the listener. There are highlights but even then there are too many of those to mention in this review. However, a quick sketch map allows us to alight on some of our favourites. Both of those old skull and roses survivors, Bob Weir and Phil Lesh, sparkle with Lesh & The Terrapin Family Band sounding quite cosmic on ‘Freeway To The Canyon’ while Weir is wonderfully laconic on the lean ‘Time & Trouble’. Billy Strings, backed by Circles Around The Sun, aches wonderfully on a brilliant version of ‘All The Luck In The World’ while Todd Scheaffer’s ‘December’ is a drop dead gorgeous ballad. We have to make space to mention Jonathan Wilson’s ‘Detroit Or Buffalo’ which is a glorious slice of pedal steel sweetened country rock, along with the pared back piano delivery of ‘Pray Me Home’ by Jason Crosby. For sheer bravado however, Jimmy Herring’s version of ‘Bird With No Name’ (accompanied by Circles Around The Sun) is quite spectacular and Warren Haynes digs into Neil Young’ Zuma’ territory for his devastating guitar bonanza that is ‘Free To Go’.
We’ve barely scratched the surface here and there’s so much more which is quite joyous and uplifting. Suffice to say that ‘Highway Butterfly’ is throughout, a glorious listen, despite the sense of sadness and loss ever present. There’s an accompanying podcast which has many of the contributors relaying their memories of Neal.
All proceeds from sales of ‘Highway Butterfly: The Songs of Neal Casal’ will benefit the Neal Casal Music Foundation, a non-profit formed in 2020, which provides musical instruments and lessons to students in New Jersey and New York state schools where Casal was born and raised, while also donating proceeds to mental health organizations for musicians, including MusiCares and Backline. All details can be found here.