It’s hard to believe that two years have passed since the gargantuan Grateful Dead: Fare Thee Well five-show run in Santa Clara, California, and Chicago, Illinois. The surviving core four members of Grateful Dead were joined by Bruce Hornsby, Trey Anastasio and Jeff Chimenti for stadium shows that gathered tens of millions in profit and more importantly enduring memories for fans and the band. Regardless of one’s opinion as to whether those “final” shows were as musically significant as they previous reunions, as the picky Deadhead camp with always have contrary opinions, the whole crowd was both captivated and intrigued by the vaguely familiar music grooving through the PA system at Fare Thee Well’s set breaks. Various accounts of folks asking one and other; “Who in the hell is this playing and why haven’t I heard it before?!”
Filmmaker Justin Kreutzmann, (son of Grateful Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann) was given the daunting tasking as the videographer for Fare Thee Well. Along the road of pre-production, Kreutzmann realized he needed a soundtrack, nothing concretely familiar but evocative of the ethos represented in the Grateful Dead’s style of the improvisational voyage. He asked an acquaintance, gifted guitarist Neal Casal if he would be up for the task of composing some music to accompany his videography. Casal, humbled and daunted by the magnitude of the proposal, accepted. Casal knew he’d need some assistance. Instead of composing and multi-tracking in the studio, he assembled a four-piece group of musical friends with the mission of creating mesmerizing extended grooves and improvisations akin to the Grateful Dead spirit. Casal invited Chris Robinson Brotherhood keyboard wizard Adam MacDougall, drummer Mark Levy, and bassist Dan Horne. Their studio jam sessions were wildly successful, far beyond the scope of their already ambitious task set forth.
Flash forward to the present, Circles Around The Sun’s debut Interludes For The Dead is nearing two years since its release, with universal acclaim from fans and the Dead. They’ve played wild gigs at Brooklyn Bowl and a successful run in Colorado to the fans that appreciate “out-there” material more than the conventional. Coming into perhaps their most exciting gigs yet, at Phil Lesh’s Terrapin Crossroads venue in San Rafael, California, was perhaps more significant than anything previous. All of the players have gigged in separate incarnations past, and three of the four have been players in Phil Lesh & Friends. Grateful Web was invited to the second and final night of the Terrapin Crossroads run. The crowd took its time filling the venue for the sold-out show. Psychedelic-folk duo Mapache opened the show with a mesmerizing warm-up that won the crowd over by the time their first song finished. Those honest dual harmonies evoked the Everly Brothers while their impressive picking resonated of Norman Blake’s finest rudiments. The crowd was plenty warmed up for Circles Around The Sun.
Noteworthy to mention was the vintage liquid light show, which probably added onto the band’s leisurely arrival. The awe striking display complied of colored mineral oils and alcohols from multiple projectors, illuminated onto the blank canvas backdrop. The band insider took the time to constantly add to and swirl around brilliant ever-changing psychedelic artwork, which immensely added to the vibe. When Casal and CO took the stage; it was already apparent Terrapin Crossroads was in for something special. While some might have been apprehensive of Circles Around The Sun being a captivating headliner for a full extended concert, any such notions were immediately squandered as the band began to play. Seven extended compositions took two and a half hours to unfold. Neal Casal’s guitar effect pedal rig was monstrous and well equipped to take the crowd on the psychedelic journey of a lifetime.
Circles Around The Sun draws inspiration from the golden age of Grateful Dead's jazzy exploratory improvisations. Nothing ever off the table and no agenda aside from letting the music guide the journey. While all of the tunes played Saturday were released on their studio album, all of the jams took their own individual shape, growing wings and taking off far past the original tracks. “Hallucinate A Solution,” the opening jam, unfolded over twenty-five minutes of deep groves. MacDougall’s vintage clavinet synthesizer packed a powerful punch alongside Levy’s outrageous fusion open-endedness. No matter how close to the edge the tunes got, they always brought it back accordingly. “Gilbert’s Groove” took on exquisite eastern-sounding tonalities while “Farewell Franklins” brought the crowd into familiar territory with the backbone of the “Franklin’s Tower” riff, inevitably serving as a launchpad for an entirely different mission.
While one two and a half hour set of only instrumentals might seem troublesome to those outside of the jam-sphere, the sheer passion and constant movement of the tunes kept the crowd so captivated that by the time the band came out for the “Ginger Says” encore, folks could hardly believe it was almost over. It’s a wonderful thing that the scene fostered this project into a full-on touring band and welcomed these songs into the jam canon. There’s a bright future ahead for Circles Around The Sun as the possibilities seem to continually unfold. We’ll all be on the lookout for future endeavors.