Side project from the Grateful Dead’s “Fare Thee Well” shows takes on a life of its own
It’s one more Saturday night at Terrapin Crossroads, and the Grate Room is jam packed for one of modern rock’s most unlikely success stories with Circles Around the Sun (CATS). Commissioned by Justin Kreutzmann (the filmmaker son of Grateful Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann) to put together a soundtrack to accompany biographical visuals that would be projected during set breaks of the Dead’s 50th anniversary “Fare Thee Well” stadium shows in 2015, guitarist Neal Casal forged CATS to cut tracks that suggested a Grateful Dead flavor but spun off in their own improvisational directions.
Casal was an ideal project leader, with a deep background in such music. Lead guitarist for the Chris Robinson Brotherhood, he’s also played with the Dead’s Phil Lesh on a number of occasions and sat in with Lesh and Bob Weir for the entire second set of an October 2013 Furthur show at the Los Angeles Greek Theater that demonstrated how seamlessly he can jump into the Dead’s world as he helped spur the band to one of the year’s finest shows. The music from CATS’ album Interludes for the Dead was a runaway winner, with fans digging how the often ambient yet sometimes rocking tracks provided fitting sonic backgrounds for the Fare Thee Well shows when the band wasn’t onstage.
Demand soon arose for more, and so Casal and CATS have taken the project live for a handful of shows over the past year. With CRB bandmate Adam MacDougall on keys, Dan Horne on bass, and Marc Levy on drums, Casal crafted a unit that lives to jam and jams to live. The band has become a trendy aftershow event, such as for late shows they delivered this summer following Dead & Company in Boulder and Phish in New York City. But here, CATS is the main event for a two-night stand at the house that Lesh built.
The first night offered a solid performance, but the quartet shows they’re primed to take things to another level when they open here with what becomes a stunning jam on “Space Wheel”. Paying tribute to one of the Dead’s most spiritual songs on what is nearly the eve of “the Days Between” (when the GD community honors Jerry Garcia from his birthday on August 1 until the date of his Earthly departure on August 9), the song starts off in an ambient mode similar to how the GD would come out of the space section of their shows. But whereas the album track goes on in an ambient manner for its full 17-minute duration, here the band continues to develop the theme and builds up a jamming groove that soon takes on a life of its own. Casal and MacDougall add melodic lines, while the rhythm section picks up the tempo to get the audience moving. It’s only the first song of the night, but the band is soon in “the zone” as they go on to deliver a sensational 30-minute opening jam.
This will turn out to be the theme of the night, as Casal and company take the tunes for extended crowd-pleasing rides. “Saturday’s Children” features an an”Althea” type riff to keep the set grooving along toward the next big highlight which soon follows with a stupendously jammy workout on “Farewell Franklin’s”, a melodic number that riffs off the groove from “Eyes of the World”. The quartet shows their high level of chemistry here, as they build the jam in that dynamic way where it seems the music starts to play the band. Casal delivers some ace lead guitar lines, while MacDougall keeps the harmonics elevated with some psychedelic organ work. Soon Casal is playing a more rhythmic style, while MacDougall conjures some vintage electric piano from what feels like the Miles Davis Bitches Brew or perhaps early ‘70s Garcia jams with keyboardist friends Howard Wales and Merl Saunders . The jam then evolves into what seems more like “I Know You Rider” for a big flourish, with Horne and Levy powering a giant groove that gets the whole room rocking.
Other jams diving into sonic landscapes along the lines of “They Love Each Other”, “West LA Fadeaway” and “Shakedown Street”, with fans reveling in the extended explorations of each. Then there is an interweaving mashup of sorts, with the “Shakedown” jam returning toward the end of the set, except that the groove is more along the lines of the Dead’s original arrangement. This gets the room rocking again before giving way back into an ambient return on what seems like a short reprise of “Space Wheel” to give the set a truly circuitous navigation.
A fun encore of “Scarlotta’s Magnolias” seems to blend the chord progression from “Scarlet Begonias” with a jazzy fusion vibe for a sonic trip that again feels like a blend of the Grateful Dead with Miles Davis (who actually opened for the Dead at the Fillmore one night during the Bitches Brew tour in the spring of 1970.) This could well be the last show of the year for Circles Around the Sun, what with Casal and MacDougall about to embark on a lengthy national tour with the Chris Robinson Brotherhood. CATS is a side project that has taken on a legend of its own though, providing yet another fresh outlet for Grateful Dead music to live and breathe in the ever-evolving manner in which the mythical music has come to demand even more than two decades after the de facto leader of the band bid the Earth farewell.