Circles Around the Sun
Photo: Mikaela Davis / Courtesy of Calabro Music Media

Circles Around the Sun and Mikaela Davis Get Their Groove On in San Francisco

Circles Around the Sun and Mikaela Davis’ collaboration shows how the jam-rock scene has long been one of the most close-knit communities in the music business.

Spring is in the air, and good vibes are here in San Francisco’s central part of town because Circles Around the Sun are rolling in for a Wednesday night fiesta here on 6 April. The instrumental quartet have earned a reputation as groovy tone scientists who play with a collective synergy greater than the sum of the parts. It’s a testament to the sound crafted by the band’s original guitarist and ringleader, Neal Casal, who created a distinctive sonic signature in 2015 that would outlast him after his tragic departure from the Earth in 2019.

But Casal left behind a wish for the band to carry on, so they have in admirable fashion. That has been much to the delight of a fanbase that willed the band into existence by taking such a liking to the music that Casal and his cohorts had put together for the set breaks of the Grateful Dead’s 2015 “Fare Thee Well” stadium shows in Santa Clara and Chicago. Music originally intended only as a studio project soon took on a life of its own, as the band took the show on the road to widespread acclaim. Circles Around the Sun have manifested an unexpected new life, like a cat with nine lives. 

There have been obstacles to overcome, with the band now on their third guitarist in the post-Casal era. But it looks like keyboardist Adam MacDougall, bassist Dan Horne, and drummer Mark Levy may have found their man in John Lee Shannon. The band pulled off triumphant tours with well-known players in Eric Krasno and Scott Metzger, but it now appears they may have needed to find someone who could make Circles Around the Sun a top priority.

Circles Around the Sun typically tour independently, but this California run features an extra treat with Mikaela Davis & Southern Star opening the show. Davis burst onto the scene with a strong debut album in 2018’s Delivery, displaying her strong talents as a singer, songwriter, and harpist. She received a high-profile endorsement when she sat in with Bob Weir & Wolf Bros at the 2019 Lockn’ Festival in Virginia, with a free webcast that displayed her talents to a national audience. Bay Area music fans have been waiting to see her live ever since, so there’s a good size audience on hand for the opening act tonight. There’s also some synergy in play because Davis teamed up with Circles Around the Sun in the studio on their new 2022 single “Language”.

Mikaela Davis & Southern Star do not disappoint as they deliver a vibrant set of tunes displaying influences across blues, jazz, classic rock, and more. Playing a big classical harp at center stage generates an inherently angelic vibe, but Davis backs this up with her enchanting voice and songwriting on bluesy melodic gems like “Do You Wanna Be Mine?” She mixes things up nicely with a groovy Eastern vibe on “Pure Divine Love”, with a sound that feels like Davis could be playing a club in the late 1960s where Austin Powers and his posse are getting down. 

The more recent “Don’t Stop Now” (a new single in 2021) makes an emphatic impression, as Davis sings inspiring lyrics about transcending corporate greed and letting our spirits grow. This crazy world sure could use more music like this! The song surges with an energetic jam that sounds like they’re jamming on the Grateful Dead’s “Cold Rain and Snow”, but with a next-generation vibe that has some flashing back to the historic evening in 1999 when the Dead’s Phil Lesh sat in on the song with Phish for a sensational jam at the Shoreline Amphitheater about an hour south of here.

The headlining set from Circles Around the Sun has a festive vibe from the start, with the band flanked by five disco balls for extra vibes and psychedelia. It takes a few tunes for the quartet to get dialed in, but the sound clicks on “Scarlotta’s Magnolias” from the band’s debut album to kick the set into high gear. The song knicks the chord progression from the Dead’s “Scarlet Begonias”, but spins it into a funkier sonic landscape with keyboardist Adam MacDougall’s trippy synth melodies and drummer Mark Levy’s syncopated accents. The jam here goes in another crowd-pleasing direction when it shifts into a “Dear Mr. Phantasy” groove, which conjures visions of musical heroes lost too soon, from Brent Mydland and Jerry Garcia to Neal Casal and Taylor Hawkins.

“Landline Memories” is one of the catchiest tunes from the band’s third album – 2020’s eponymous release – and it keeps the feel-good vibes flowing here with an ever-smiling Levy and bassist Dan Horne laying down an infectious groove. MacDougall weaves wizardly melodies recalling some of his trippier work with Casal in the Chris Robinson Brotherhood, and guitarist John Lee Shannon adds some solid riffage to propel the music higher. “Immovable Object” takes the set in more of a Pink Floydish direction, with spacey melodies and trippy vibes that recall stoney nights listening to Dark Side of the Moon.

It becomes clear that Circles Around the Sun will play one longer set straight through rather than a two-set show, but that’s ok since it’s a Wednesday night, and they’ve got a great flow going. At one point, Davis and a bandmate return to the stage to contribute some extra percussion to a vibrant jam, and it’s clear to see everyone is having enormus fun. Horne pauses in between songs at another point to check in on the audience and notes that he is a San Francisco native. “I was born right down the street. Go, Giants,” he says, winning an extra cheer with the 2022 baseball season just getting started. 

There’s also a deeper connection that many Bay Area music fans have with the San Francisco Giants, ever since Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, and Vince Welnick from the Grateful Dead sang the national anthem at the team’s 1993 home opener. This connection only grew over the years when Phil Lesh sang the anthem at the Giants’ last home game at Candlestick Park in 1999, and then especially in 2010 when the Giants held the first Jerry Garcia night that season and then went on to win their first World Series title since relocating to The City in 1958.

The brand new “Away Team” is another winner, with Circles Around the Sun rocking an upbeat tune with plenty of jammy exploration. The energy here carries into the groovy “Babyman”, an endearing number about a friend’s cat. As the band brings the two-hour set to a rousing conclusion, everyone is getting down. 

The encore is a bonus team up as Mikaela Davis returns to join the band for “Language”, their new collaboration just released in March. The spacey, jammy tune has the Circles Around the Sun signature sound, with Davis adding extra flair on her harp. The collaboration between Circles Around the Sun and Davis hints at how the jam-rock scene has long been one of the most close-knit communities in the music business. Such collaborations are always being looked upon as unique opportunities to see how two great tastes can go even better together with Reese’s peanut butter cups. It’s been a blast, and it remains a treat to see the San Francisco music scene returning to full strength.

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