The band name Circles Around The Sun is an esoteric reference to missing Jerry Garcia, but its poignancy is now greater with the loss of bandleader Neal Casal.
Back on the road with new guitarist John Lee Shannon, Circles Around The Sun, commonly known as CATS, will perform Monday at Cypress Reno, a renovated midtown venue that’s booked an ambitious and tasteful lineup of spring shows. CATS’ tour will continue to Northern California with performances in Sacramento, San Francisco, Petaluma and Santa Cruz.
“It’s been very cathartic,” drummer Mark Levy said. “I am grateful to continue to play the music and write new music, and I think about him every day. It’s hard. On this tour we’ve been revisiting places that we’ve played with Neal. Those places remind you of those times that you had. There’s nothing left to do but smile, smile, smile and play on. We do it for him and ourselves and everybody else who wants to hear the music.”
The April 4 show lands two years after the scheduled April 5, 2020 appearance at nearby Crystal Bay, which was postponed due to the pandemic. In the interim, CATS released an album, “Live At The Charleston Pour House 11/22/21” and a studio single, “Language.”
Casal created Circles Around The Sun to provide instrumental music during the intermissions of Grateful Dead’s five 2015 “Fare Thee Well” performances, the shows recognizing the 20th anniversary of the band’s final appearances with Jerry Garcia.
Filmmaker/producer Justin Kruetzmann, Grateful Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann’s son, was commissioned to create new music to play in between sets. Rather than Dead cover songs, Kruetzmann wanted songs that captured the essence of the band. He hired Casal to assemble the players.
“He wanted music that felt connected to the Grateful Dead but not mimicking it,” Casal told Tahoe Onstage in 2015. “So it was trying to ride the fine line of doing something familiar to fans but not be too derivative. I approached it from that perspective, and I called the right musicians who could help me with that idea.”
Casal brought in two players from his other bands keyboardist Adam MacDougall of Chris Robinson Brotherhood and Dan Horne of Beachwood Sparks. MacDougall suggested the drummer should be Levy, who he’d come across on the road several times with the band Congress.
CATS followed up 2015’s “Interludes For The Dead with “Let It Wander” in 2018. The self-titled album “Circles Around The Sun” was nearly completed when Casal took his life. He left a letter.
“He made it clear that he wanted all of his friends to play music and have good times and be a family and take care of each other,” Levy said. “He definitely wanted us to put the album out, and how do you put an album out and not tour? We extrapolated that to him saying I want you to be happy and do whatever you want to do. In the aftermath of that tragedy, we had to come together and decide what do we want to do? It immediately felt right to continue to play. He wouldn’t want us to change our lives.”
Casal suggested a couple of people to help complete the album: engineer Jim Scott, who did in fact complete the mixing, and guitarist John Lee Shannon, to fill any needed guitar parts.
“We all rejected that because we didn’t think it would be right for anybody else to play (guitar) on that album in Neal’s last recording session ever,” Levy said.
Instead of adding guitar parts, MacDougall filled space with “orchestrating and arranging,” Levy said. “I was recording percussion at Dan’s studio in L.A., recording to Neal’s parts and he’d just died a week before that. It was so intense. So traumatic.”
Eric Krasno, Jared Mattson and Scott Metzger have served at guitarists for Circles Around The Sun, but when Metzger abruptly left last summer, the band members were at another crossroad.
“We had to decide – again – if we wanted to even continue,” Levy said. “We said, ‘Maybe this is when we need to listen to Neal,’ and we called John. … It just turned out after rehearsing with John for two days, our first performance … happened to fall on Neal’s death day, exactly two years to the day. I have a profound renewed faith in, I don’t know, serendipity. Call it what you will.
“John is a fantastic guitarist. His style, his voice on his instrument fit really well with our music, and he’s awesome to work with and be around.”
CATS has played almost 100 live shows and nearly 30 with Shannon.
The interweaving melodies of Casal and MacDougall’s, of course, can never be replicated.
“Neal and Adam didn’t just start playing like that. That was developed over years,” Levy said. “Every band is always evolving. Even if Neal was still here, we wouldn’t be the band we were two years ago. We’re just moving forward and making music that we like to play and that feels good for us, and we hope is the same for the listener.
“Music is a very unique and powerful form of human expression. I’m just incredibly stoked to get to play music right now at this point in my life and the life of everything that’s been going on for us and the world. We need more music. We need less war. We need less division. We need more coming together. My life has taught me that when things get tough there’s a lot of opportunity for real growth. We got to have some swing back from the pendulum when things get really dark.”
- Circles Around The Sun
- When: 8 p.m. Monday, April 4
- Where: Cypress Reno
- Tickets: $22 and $25
- Where else: Harlow’s in Sacramento on April 5 and The Independent in San Francisco on April 6