Neal Casal: 1968-2019

August 27, 2019
Neal Casal: 1968-2019

Neal Casal, the guitarist and singer best known for his work with Chris Robinson Brotherhood, Ryan Adams & The Cardinals and Circles Around the Sun, has passed away. He was 50.

A representative has confirmed that the cause of death was suicide. An official statement on behalf of Casal’s family reads, “It’s with great sadness that we tell you our brother Neal Casal has passed away. As so many of you know, Neal was a gentle, introspective, deeply soulful human being who lived his life through artistry and kindness. His family, friends and fans will always remember him for the light that he brought to the world. Rest easy Neal, we love you.”

Neal Casal at LOCKN’ 2019 (photo by Dean Budnick)

Raised in Denville, N.J., Casal first gained prominence playing in a latter-day version of the Southern-rock act Blackfoot with Rickey Medlocke, who he toured with from 1988-1993. Casal spent most of the ‘90s focusing on studio work and his solo career, honing in on an original singer-songwriter sound that foresaw genres like post-jam and indie-jam as well as the Americana revival that would emerge a decade later.

Ingraining himself in both the New York and California musical communities, Casal toured as part of the influential alt-country art Beachwood Sparks from 2000-2003 and, when the act had the chance to tour with the Black Crowes, the guitarist first bonded with future bandmate Chris Robinson. Casal formed the rock band Hazy Malaze in 2002, which also had some success touring with a young Robert Randolph and his Family Band. Railroad Earth also recorded a cover of Casal’s original tune “Dandelion Wine” in 2002, and he cemented his reputation as a roots-rock torchbearer through studio collaborations with with members of Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers. 

Casal’s big break arrived when he joined Ryan Adam’s Grateful Dead-inspired Cardinals in 2005, serving as one of the group’s guitarists and singers until their 2009 breakup. As a member of the beloved Cardinals, Casal teamed with Adams through the latter musician’s most cosmic musical period, helping push the group deeper into the improvisational realm while working with Phil Lesh and Willie Nelson. Casal also contributed to several of The Cardinals’ studio albums, including 2007’s Easy Tiger,  2007’s Follow the Lights and 2008’s Cardinology, as well as belated releases like 2010’s III/IV and 2011’s Class Mythology, plus Adams’ 2011 solo record, Ashes & Fire.

Following their split with Adams, The Cardinals worked together as a backing unit for a bit with acts like Gin Wigmore, and Casal rebooted his session work, recording with Mark Olson, Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion, Amanda Shires, Vetiver, James Iha, Fruit Bats and Gospelbeach. 

In 2011, Robinson recruited Casal for his new psychedelic act, the Chris Robinson Brotherhood, cementing a longstanding collaboration that continued until shortly before Casal’s passing. As Robinson’s co-pilot, Casal had a multi-faceted role in the CRB, acting as a guitarist, singer and songwriter, and blending his interests in folk, rock, jam, funk, R&B and soul into a truly singular sound. The guitarist can be heard on such releases as 2012’s Big Moon Ritual and The Magic Door, 2013’s Betty’s SF Blends Vol 1, 2014’s Phosphorescent Harvest, Try Rock N’ Roll and Betty’s Blends Vol 2: Best From The West, 2016’s Anyway You Love, We Know How You Feel and If You Lived Here You Would Be Home By Now, 2017’s Betty’s Blends Vol 3: Self Rising Southern Blends and Barefoot In The Head, 2018’s Raven’s Reels Vol 1 and, most recently, this year’s Servants Of The Sun. 

Thanks to Robinson’s close ties with Lesh (and Casal’s own roots as a Deadhead), the members of CRB worked with the Grateful Dead bassist on numerous occasions and became fixtures at his San Rafael, Calif. club, Terrapin Crossroads. In 2015, Casal composed a set of original, Dead-inspired instrumentals as the official house music for the GD50 Fare Thee Well shows; the music proved to be so inspired that Casal ended up releasing the music as Interludes for the Dead under the name Circles Around the Sun. The studio project quickly turned into a true band, marking their debut at Arrington, Va.’s LOCKN’ festival in 2016 and performing select shows around the country during the past three years. Last year, CATS, as they were affectionately known, released their sophomore LP of original material, Let It Wander, and the band recently finished the collaborative EP, Circles Around the Sun Meets Joe Russo, with the Almost Dead drummer. 

“Heartbroken. Rest easy, my friend,” Russo wrote upon hearing the news of Casal’s passing. “I love you with all my heart. I’m so thankful I got to share a slice of life with you.”

Casal with Circles Around the Sun in 2018 (photo by Stuart Levine)

Between gigs with the CRB, Casal reunited with members of Beachwood Sparks and Cass McCombs to tour and record, primarily, in the Bay Area as The Skiffle Players. He also participated in the jam-roots supergroup Hard Working Americans with Todd Snider, Widespread Panic’s Dave Schools and Duane Trucks, and others. 

Earlier this year, Chris Robinson Brotherhood parted ways with founding keyboardist and CATS mainstay Adam MacDougall and, shortly after, went on hiatus. Robinson cited his own need to take some time off the road as a primary factor in the band’s break. Casal had planned to perform with CATS and his other projects while CRB remained on ice. 

Shooter Jennings, another Casal collaborator over the years, writes, “I am absolutely devastated with the news of the loss of my dear friend and consistent collaborator Neal Casal—he was always my favorite picker in LA and we’d all just finished some beautiful music together. I’m really just hollowed out by this.”

This past weekend, Circles Around the Sun played a late-night set at LOCKN’ that featured a cameo by Russo, and Casal participated in a special version of Oteil Burbridge & Friends that featured the Dead & Company bassist along with Bob Weir, Duane Betts, Melvin Seals, Eric Krasno, Jay Lane, Jen Hartswick, Natalie Cressman, James Casey and more. The latter set marked Casal’s final onstage appearance.

“I just started to really get to know Neal and he was one of those people that I felt such genuine warmth from,” Burbridge wrote today. “My heart goes out to his family, friends and brothers of the road. This hurts so terribly much. I was looking forward to seeing that smile so many more times.”

Casal was also a noted photographer who shot for Relix and released the photo book Ryan Adams & the Cardinals: A View of Other Windows in 2010. He has 12 solo albums credited to his name.

Watch a clip of Casal’s final performance at LOCKN’ 2019 with Oteil & Friends below: