Though it won’t be the first time the Chris Robinsoon Brotherhood have played Greenfield Lake Amphitheater (1941 Amphitheatre Dr.), Wilmingtonians who live for live music are ready to see them return. Touring is literally at the band’s foundation—one the Chris Robinson Brotherhood (CRB) cemented upon their upstart.
Made up of Robinson (vocals/guitar), Neal Casal (guitar/vocals), Adam Macdougall (keys), Tony Leone (drums) and Mark Dutton (bass), the CRB debuted their union in early 2011. Its well-known frontman, Robinson—from The Black Crows fame—primarily instigated and produced their first two albums in one year: “Big Moon Ritual” (June 2012) and “The Magic Door” (September 2012). Lead guitarist Neal Casal knows the difference between manufactured and authentic bands; he’s been a “hired gun” in some and has performed solo as well. He saw something special with CRB when hearing Robinson’s blueprint for the band: taking to the road for 120 shows before recording one note in a studio.
“Chris wanted to form a real band on the outset, go on tour, figure out the band’s identity, then go and record it, and see what happens,” Casal explains. “We’re hard-working [and] hard-touring, and that’s how it’s been from the beginning.”
Casal has cultivated his talents as guitarist, singer and songwriter for many years. He’s also an accomplished photographer who keeps a photo journal on his website while on tour. Aside from his return to Wilmington with the CRB, he’ll make a mark with his side project, Hard Working Americans, who will play Greenfield Lake as well in August. All of Casal’s recognition and multiple levels of work haven’t come easy, though. He’s been a part of well-known acts like Ryan Adams and the Cardinals, Beachwood Sparks, The Jayhawks, Fruit Bats, and Vetiver.
“After 25 years, I feel like I’m at the best and most fertile point in my musical life,” he tells. His talent and success are only amplified by his team-player mentality. He wants to deliver what is needed.
“I let the music tell me what it needs from me,” he explains. “I’m there to serve the song and the people I’m working with, and I try not to bring too strong of my personal agenda to what I’m doing.”
In this sense, Casal has treated his tenure with every band the same way: Each day offers a new way for him to discover what the music needs.
“When I follow that [philosophy,] things work out well,” he says. “When my ego’s into a heavier place or [I] feel like I have something to prove, I usually end up getting hung up or bogged down.”
Some Grateful Dead fans out there, especially those who were at any of the recent Fare Thee Well concerts, may know Casal for the (surprisingly) memorable five-hour original intermission music he composed for the shows. It’s not often original music is written and recorded specifically for a concert’s break. More so, it’s pretty rare for it to be acknowledged amid the wandering and chattering of an audience, let alone praised. Yet, fans and Billboard and Relix magazines lauded Casal’s contributions to the 50th anniversary concerts of the Dead.
“It was done with the expectation no one would really pay attention to it all,” he says. “I worked really hard on it and brought everything that I could to it—but I thought it was going to be more like very low-volume music, like in a restaurant that no one really pays attention to.”
Folks did pay attention.
Casal’s approach to the compositions came from the perspective of an audience member. He tried to think of what a Deadhead would want to hear—without sounding like the Dead. “We tried to ask ourselves, ‘What would be good for your trip?’” Casal quips. “We went to those shows; we’re long-time Deadheads. We’re into this stuff, and it was a matter of respect and reverence.”
Casal walked the extra mile in creating the music: He founded a band to help him. He culled Adam Macdougall of CRB, along with Dan Horne (Beachwood Sparks) and drummer Mark Levy (Congress), to form Franklins of the World. Their Dead show recordings are now being sought for purchase—it’s unconfirmed if or when a digital copy will be released.
“Obviously it’s hard to come up with things that are original, and it’s OK to show your influences and show them proudly,” Casal says, “but you have to bring your original twist to what you do.”
In between side projects, he and his brothers in CRB composed and recorded “Phosphorescent Harvest” in 2014 with producer Thom Monahan and Silver Arrow Records. Songs like “Clear Blue Sky and the Good Doctor” and “Shore Power” definitely reflect Grateful Dead influences, with whimsical psychedelia. Mixed with rock, funk and country, there’s also a distinct overall tone and attitude brought in by Robinson’s vocals. It’s genuine. It also showcases more of a songwriting partnership between Robinson and Casal.
While Casal’s approach and attitude toward music is consistent, he goes as far to credit Robinson and their work together for his current success. He attributes it to the rhythm he’s found over the past few years.
“That’s what started all of this,” he explains. “If it wasn’t for Chris, I never would have done the Grateful Dead set music. I wouldn’t be in the Hard Working Americans; all of it started with him.”
Whether Casal undertakes another solo record or a different smaller project remains questionable and possible. Yet, he’s comfortable with where he currently stands—neither overwhelmed nor torn between projects.
“We’re all really good friends and we’re all generally after the same thing in our music, our live shows and our lives in general,” Casal tells of his bandmates. “It’s not that hard for me. It’s just all a matter of working with good friends on good songs. Right now, I’m really inspired being the in the Chris Robinson Brotherhood [and] playing in the other bands that I’m in. I feel like I’m in the right place right now.”
Check out Neal Casal with the Chris Robinson Brotherhood at Greenfield Lake Amphitheater this Friday, July 24. Doors open at 6 p.m. and show starts at 7 p.m. He’ll return with Hard Working Americans on August 19, 6 p.m. For more details, or to purchase tickets online, visit www.greenfieldlakeamphitheater.com.