The Golden State has been re-opening slower than many other states from the Covid-19 virus shutdowns, but most Californians are fine with that. Everyone’s eager to return to normal, of course, but Californians like to take things slow and easy. Here at the Chapel in San Francisco’s Mission District, the indoor concert hall remains closed for now. But the hip venue has been staging intimate outdoor dinner shows by turning the parking lot next door into a patio, with food and adult beverages provided by the adjacent Curio Bar & Restaurant.
Jamrock quartet Circles Around the Sun have played some memorable shows at the Chapel in recent years, including a two-night stand in January of 2018 that saw the band packing the house for a pair of jubilant dance parties (with an enlargement of that run’s poster appearing here as part of the patio’s decor). The band’s return to the Chapel in October of 2019 was a less jubilant occasion, due to how guitarist and band founder Neal Casal had stunned the music world by inexplicably taking his own life two months earlier. But it was a uniquely cathartic and still uplifting experience to join together with the band in moving forward on Casal’s parting wishes that they keep this music going.
The feeling that came across that night was that the band’s sound had a life of its own, with a unique sonic signature that’s greater than the sum of the parts. Guitarist Eric Krasno filled in admirably on that 2019 fall tour to help Circles Around the Sun keep up with their previous tour dates and re-launch into jam space. Now the band has drawn another ace from up their collective sleeve with guitarist Scott Metzger from Joe Russo’s Almost Dead filling out the lineup alongside keyboardist Adam MacDougall, bassist Dan Horne, and drummer Mark Levy. What’s the common denominator between Casal, Krasno, and Metzger? All three have been a part of scintillating performances of Grateful Dead music as members in the rotating cast of Phil Lesh & Friends.
Circles Around the Sun have played a handful of shows across the Golden State over the past month, with this show leading toward another trip back down to Southern California. From the moment the quartet hits the stage for the late afternoon “early show” performance that starts around 5:45 pm here on Thursday, 3 June, it’s clear that Metzger fits right in on this interstellar flight team with his laid back vibe and fluid guitar skills. The atmosphere is not quite the same as the band’s typical evening shows before packed dance floors, augmented by their ultra psychedelic light show. But the gentle breeze and San Francisco sunshine on a clear day helps the band generate a groovy happy-hour vibe that feels special in its own way.
“Babyman” from the band’s latest album kicks off the set as Horne and Levy lock in on an upbeat groove that gets heads nodding and toes tapping on the playful tune about a friend’s cat. Levy always seems dialed into a feel-good beat with a music-powered grin that’s downright infectious. It’s next to impossible to watch this man play and not tune in to the positive vibe. Then there’s MacDougall as the wizardly tone scientist, conjuring sonic spells from his bag of keyboard tricks as well as some cowbell in this case. Metzger floats around in the spaces between, demonstrating a strong sense of when to lay back and when to step up the riffage.
It’s one of those typical San Francisco summer days where it’s rather cool if you’re in the shade and quite warm if you’re in the sunshine. Most of the dinner tables are in the shade, while the bar tables on the right side of the stage are in the sun. Sitting at one of the sunny bar tables drinking a perfectly mixed frozen mango margarita while the band explores blissful jams on “Gilbert’s Groove” and “Scarlotta’s Begonias” creates a sublimely pleasing experience for the senses. There’s a notable sense of remembering a forgotten feeling that’s been largely absent over the past year and a half, here on the third stone from the sun.
“Landline Memories” is another gem from 2020’s self-titled third album, as the band transports the audience to an uplifting sonic landscape that inspires some of the seated patrons to get up and start grooving. The song builds from a slower verse section that feels like traveling through space into a high-energy chorus section that feels like landing right in the middle of a treehouse dance party on the forest moon of Endor. This is music that’s good for the body and good for the soul, a stellar auditory elixir for snapping out of the quarantine blues. Metzger shines on a surging guitar solo that powers the jam higher before sending the melody over to MacDougall as if on a mission with the Guardians of the Galaxy to use music to help save the cosmos.
“Is everybody all good?” Horne asks several times, playing the role of hospitable host checking in on his party guests. There’s unanimous positive sentiment on this question each time, enabling the band to keep the tunes flowing freely. The quartet takes a psychedelic deep dive on “Immovable Object” as Horne leans into a deep low end to power a hyperdrive surge, while MacDougall and Metzger move from spacing out to melting face and back.
“Leaving Rogue Lemon” functions as a spacier meditative interlude of sorts before the 90-plus-minute set moves into its finale with “One for Chuck”. It’s a tune from the second album that seems to share some of the Grateful Dead’s DNA from the first album. But then the band powers the jam into the 21st century with some warp drive action for a satisfying conclusion, before guiding the spaceship back down to terra firma here in the future hometown of Starfleet Academy.
Scott Metzger’s Orbit Into Circles Around the Sun
Best known as a member of Joe Russo’s Almost Dead (JRAD), Metzger’s journey into Circles Around the Sun (CATS) now seems like fate. This is due to how JRAD had a show to play at Colorado’s famed Red Rocks Amphitheater just three days after Neal Casal’s untimely departure from the Earth in August of 2019.
Well known as the most dynamic all-star Grateful Dead tribute band in existence, there’s a connection between JRAD and CATS that was on synchronistic display that week. Casal had started CATS as just a studio project when he was requested to create set break music for the Grateful Dead Fare Thee Well stadium shows in 2015. The music was so well received at those five shows in Santa Clara and Chicago that Casal and company were then inspired to take CATS on the road. Drummer Joe Russo also recorded an EP with CATS released in 2019, Circles Around the Sun Meets Joe Russo. Between that friendship and the fact that both bands were directly inspired by the timeless music of the Grateful Dead, there was little doubt that some sort of tribute to Casal would be not just appropriate but downright mandatory on that memorable evening at Red Rocks.
The intensely exploratory 20-plus-minute jam on “Bird Song” to open the night’s second set was clearly that moment, with guitarist/vocalist Tom Hamilton even altering the pronouns in the song’s opening lyrics from her/she to him/he: “All I know is something like a bird, Within him, sang, All I know he sang a little while And then flew on”. Written by Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter as an elegy for Janis Joplin in 1971, the song has long functioned as a heartfelt ode for those who left us too soon. And so it was that JRAD helped initiate a shamanic sound healing of sorts for the community that night at Red Rocks, which in retrospect ripples with even more synchronicity now that Metzger is serving as a full-time member of CATS (in addition to his ongoing role rocking the nation with JRAD.)
Many fans wondered if Grateful Dead music had a future after Jerry Garcia’s untimely departure from the Earth in 1995. But the music never really stopped, with the original band members continuing to keep the flame alive in various incarnations as well as GD cover bands popping up all over the country. Circles Around the Sun doesn’t quite impact the national zeitgeist on that level, but the band has built a devoted following over the past five years. The fact that MacDougall, Horne, and Levy can keep Casal’s spirit alive through this music is an inspiring testament to the groovy sound they created together.