Thu, 07/04/2019 - 2:44 pm

We are arriving and departing all at the same time.

- David Bowie

I wasn’t sure I should even go to this show anymore. In April, when I bought the tickets, it was billed as a celebration for the release of the Chris Robinson Brotherhood’s latest album, Servants of the Sun. Then out of the blue in May, the band announced they were taking an indefinite hiatus, and ever since, I had already been painfully proceeding through the various stages of grief. It might not be a good idea to start the whole cycle over again by seeing them live. I know to expect post-show withdrawal but have never experienced it without another show on the horizon. Forgive me; I know I sound dramatic. It’s just the last time Chris Robinson was involved in a hiatus, a few months later there was a big break-up of his other band – on my birthday no less! A girl can only take so much.

CRB

I shouldn’t have been so caught off guard by the news. By all accounts, it has been no easy ride of a year for the band. There were cracks and signs, culminating in the loss of an original founding trio member. Surely, they must need a break. Eight years, with studio and/or live albums to mark every one of them, all the while maintaining a true-blue road warrior attitude to touring. I had come to rely on them, believe that they would be there for me, like the seasons. Raucous Southern shows in spring, the summer Stone Pony shows in New Jersey. The band would reliably swing up through Woodstock, New York, right before September, offering a perfect excuse to get up into the mountains and experience the change in the weather. There was that epic New Year’s Eve show in Denver, a marathon of merriment and madness, topped with a cover of White Rabbit at midnight. Feed your head became my mantra that year. And always, in the dead of winter, there was talk about going to California.

I was a little surprised when Brooklyn was selected as the location for the Servants of the Sun release party, since this is a band that celebrates California so much, and Brooklyn isn’t exactly known for its sunshine, especially in the tiny cave of a room that holds Baby’s stage. But as an East Coast fan, I was super thankful for a local show, and knew it would be intimate - a great kickoff for a big fall tour. Or so I thought at the time. A CRB album is, after all, a launch pad - a collection of music that really takes off on the road. Little did I know my heart was about to break over just how much I was not going to be hearing a new track like The Stars Fell on California get its land legs and grow into the fullness of its live potential. Trust me; Neal was just getting started with that one.

CRB | Baby's All Right | 6/27/19

The show at Baby’s was perfect, but I cannot remember a thing about it. The set list is attached below for your reference. I was in a strange state of anticipation and nostalgia, fully present, but lost in all of the other moments I had experienced with the CRB. How we had all gone, in caravan, kids in tow, to Big Sur to see the birth of the band under the California redwoods; how big those same kids had become; how some in our caravan had drifted apart since then, or become enemies, while others only got closer; there is even a wedding approaching soon for one happy couple in my freak family. It might have been a Thursday night in Brooklyn, but I was lost in space and time.

My mother always joked about the CRB, that we were secretly running off with some kind of cult, and in a way, I guess she was right. Servants of the Sun is a reminder of what it is that we follow. The album’s cover art features the letters CRB in pixilated shifting sands, a reminder that nothing is permanent - so take a spoonful every time. All around the shifting sands are pyramids and the sun – the mystery and the light - which is really what the band at their best was always in pursuit of – vibration, light, and love. The CRB burns bright. They have been turned on almost constantly to serve as our Sun. The need for recharge was inevitable.

Neal Casal & Tony Leone | CRB

Still, I’m not yet sure how I am going to live with the uncertainty of whether or not I will get to hear Neal play his guitar solos again on 100 Days of Rain. And I am left with a deep, unfulfilled need to hear Barefoot by the Cherry Tree live, just one more time, please! See, there I go bargaining again. In a way, the set list at Baby’s was just as much about the songs that were not on it as those that were. But I wouldn’t have missed it for anything, and I am grateful for the new album. Every time I spin Servants of the Sun, I get a little perspective and reassurance from Chris when he sings – The songs still get sung, what’s done is done, you can call it good clean fun

In the press for Servants of the Sun, before all the hiatus drama ensued, Chris Robinson said about Servants of the Sun, “I let my head go to a Saturday night at the Fillmore, and said, 'What's the best set we could play? The record was conceived from that starting point. With our last couple of albums, we made songs we knew we probably weren’t going to play live. This time around every one of these songs will fall into the live repertoire.”

Let’s all just hope Chris Robinson keeps letting his head go to that Saturday night show at the Fillmore. Go buy the album now, so you’re ready! As sure as the Sun’s gonna shine, we’ll be there.

Sat, 09/14/2019 - 12:27 pm

It had been almost two weeks since I even touched my phone. I was off the grid, an indulgence of a long-awaited vacation. Honestly, I had not missed being online at all, only wondering once what I might be missing. I knew CATS was playing Lockn’. Maybe Neal had posted something. My husband, on the other hand, has the kind of job that never allows for a complete disconnect, which makes for a maddening lack of freedom, but does ensure we never miss anything important. He was scrolling away to pass the time in an airport terminal when he looked up at me, his face transformed into a mix of shock and concern, wearing the kind of expression that can only mean one thing. 

This is how I came to find out about Neal was gone, in an airport in Copenhagen, waiting to board a flight for Paris.

Back in July, I had been asked if I would be going to Lockn’ to write a show review, but my answer was no, I would be on vacation, telling myself I would surely have another chance to see CATS. We must have all had tentative plans with Neal on the calendar. He had so much going on. I know I am not alone in my immense regret that I always took for granted I would see him again. I am haunted by the last words I wrote about Neal, about my grief over the breakup of the CRB; sincere, but written with a tongue-in-cheek melodrama for effect - how I am going to live with the uncertainty of whether or not I will get to hear Neal play his guitar solos again on 100 Days of Rain? Now, I will have to find out.

My reaction was surprising, even to myself. I did not know Neal personally. Although I did spend many hours within a few feet of him, in countless venues, when I do an estimate, in total it only adds up to days, not even weeks. Nonetheless, there I was - lips shaking, tears starting to roll, as if he were family. When I saw the look of confusion in my 11-year-old’s eyes, I quickly dismissed myself. Graciously, the fates allowed me a good clean Copenhagen bathroom, of solid post-war institutional construction, a true room with walls in which I could hang my head and freely weep. It had an old porcelain sink in the stall to wash my eyes, and mercifully, soft paper towels to dab them with, instead of the usual airport blow-dryer-on-a-wall. There was even a window that allowed me to look and see a sea bird circling up to the sky. I had to brace myself to leave the comfort of the thick white tiles surrounding me.

When I returned from the bathroom, my son was waiting with a big hug for me and a new look of understanding. My husband, bless him, had done what I could not - explained to him that when a great artist dies, people who were inspired by the art, who felt a real connection to it, experience their death as a very personal loss. This was a perfect explanation for the moment, but I knew it would take some time even to try to put into words what the loss of Neal meant to me. I had experienced losing other great artists and never shed a tear. This was different.

It was going on 10 am in Copenhagen, but it was the wee hours of dawn past midnight, closing time, when the chatter started online in California. I am not a night owl, so I was hearing the news before I normally would. For me, the sun was shining, a bright white morning light, while everyone back home was stumbling around, trying to figure out what was going on through the dark. It seemed lurid somehow to even be looking at what was said, and I had a strange sensation I was not supposed to see what I was reading. They had to have it wrong. Surely a legitimate representative from the daytime world would wake up in America and remove the stories. It was all a cruel joke, an internet hack – fake news. As I made my way down the long airport corridors in a daze, time felt twisted and warped, as if had stopped, while I kept moving on auto-pilot, in transit.

Paris was calling. Literally, they were calling our gate. There is some comfort in motion, in the state of disconnect one experiences in travel. When your primary responsibility is getting from here to there, schedules and time are of the utmost importance, and yet it feels as if you can somehow float above time, or at least above the consequences befalling everyone in the stationary world. Whatever is happening there will have to be dealt with later. I imagine the traveling musician is familiar with what I am talking about, in much deeper ways than I will ever understand. Even after being gone for just two weeks on a vacation, I know it is very hard to land; easy to get back home, but hard to get back to reality - to come back down.

On the plane back to Newark, New Jersey I was finally forced to sit still, in the dark, the midday sun emphatically blocked by insistent stewards who hoped to trick us into sleeping. A couple of songs kept coming to mind, and suspended up in the sky I wondered, could they be connected in some way to the name Neal had chosen for his most recent band - Circles Around the Sun? It was a riddle I posed for myself, one I could only solve once I got home to New Jersey, under grey skies and a warm light rain - tears for Neal, a native son. I was unpacking, ragged with jet lag and an undercurrent of grief, when I remembered my riddle. “Alexa, play the song Eternal Circle by Bob Dylan.” And as sometimes one must for Dylan, I sat down to listen.

Eternal Circle tells the simple story of two seekers, a guitar player and a girl. A slow waltz, Dylan plods through the lyrics, his voice brimming with longing for the girl’s elusive shadow, but full of resignation at the close of each verse, knowing how the song ends, or as its title implies, how it never really ends – so I picked up my guitar and began the next song.

I glanced at my guitar

And played it pretendin’

That of all the eyes out there

I could see none

As her thoughts pounded hard

Like the pierce of an arrow

But the song it was long

And it had to get done

As the tune finally folded

I laid down the guitar

Then looked for the girl

Who'd stayed for so long

But her shadow was missin'

For all of my searchin'

So I picked up my guitar

And began the next song

I smiled through tears, suddenly realizing why Neal had meant so much to me. A working mother of a two-year-old when Neal started playing for the Chris Robinson Brotherhood, it was often complicated, but I always got a babysitter and made sure I was there. I traveled far and wide, waited in line for doors to open and get right up front where I could see him and he could see me. Like the girl in Dylan’s metaphor, I tried to play my part well in the Eternal Circle. In the rock-n-roll fantasy, I was a true believer. I danced in the light.  And in those moments, with a nod and a smile, I am certain Neal knew his solos pierced my heart, that they had the power to transport us to a place where nothing else mattered. We needed the eternal circle, and we needed each other to dance its waltz. I am so shattered, because without Neal, the circle is broken.

I know I was not the only one. Neal had this kind of impact on people all over this country – of all genders, ages, and backgrounds. I feel a little guilty; selfish for drawing so much light from him. How did he do it - create the circle for so many of us, sustain at that inspired level night after night? The outpour of emotion in recent days has confirmed he was kind and giving; a daring, one-of-a-kind, committed musician; a loyal, encouraging friend if you were so privileged to call him one. He had so much going for him, yet wore a genuinely grateful attitude on his sleeve. I feel certain if there were any way he could still be here to go on, he would. 

But who knows what he faced when he left our little universe, our circle? The same things we all do, and as it turns out, probably very much worse than we knew. There was a darkness some of us could sense, not in him or of him, but perhaps hovering around. In his music, he seemed to take aim directly at it, finding the notes that could lift us all up out of the darkness together. In his photography, he was on the prowl for beauty, in the most unexpected places, the subways, streets and swamps. In the green rooms and hotel rooms, and on the tour bus, he was the ultimate insider who found a way, behind the camera, to retain the spirit of an outsider looking in - always searching, and sharing what he found.

This photo of Neal’s is one that stuck with me:


Louisiana bayou explorations. October 2015. #fujix100t #roadtrippin
Instagram @nealcasal

I know the place in Neal’s photo. I used to live in Houston, so New Orleans was a destination “nearby.” The truth is, it is a daunting number of miles to get out of Texas in any direction. Approaching New Orleans from the west, one drives endlessly, across low slung bridges, like the ones in the background of Neal’s picture, just inches above shallow water. Traversing the bayous by day is haunting; at night, it can be downright terrifying. What lies beneath are alligators, snakes, and water moccasins - the dark runoff of the Mississippi River. When you spot a sign of life, it shocks you, as it must have shocked Neal to see the trailer, to see that people had tried to live there.

How do people survive in this place, persist in the face of futility? Why go on? Surely, whoever left the sinking trailer behind in the bayou must know the answer. Did the photographer for a split second, in that space between the time the shutter flew and the sound of the click, understand he was not alone in his search for answers in the swamp? Did the abandonment and isolation lift, even for just a moment, as he peered through the lens? There is so much light in the darkness. You can see it if you look close enough. Do you see how the white of the trailer reflects on the water? Neal loved the water, where weightlessness could lift him, where the sun can reflect the light at its best.

It must take a toll on a person to sustain a life like Neal did in today’s world. I suppose the true believers have always had to carry a torch to light the way. And we know all too well, the brightest of flames are sometimes unable to feel their own warmth. Still, it seems unthinkable that someone who filled us with so much inspiration and joy was unable to find enough to save himself. It occurs to me only now, too late, the very depth of his gracious heart. Vital to so many moments of levity and light for others, open and obliging to his fans, he was dedicated to his part in the eternal circle too, despite the weight he must have carried, the darkness that must have haunted him.

Did you know the Tibetan Book of the Dead, properly translated, would be called Liberation Through Hearing in the Intermediate State? The book I was reading on the plane ride home mentions this fact, and the notion stopped me in my tracks. I think if we believe in anything like ghosts or spirits, we picture them being able to see us. But imagine instead that after death, the soul departs very slowly over a period of weeks, and of all the senses, we can hear as we go. I closed my book and thought, maybe Neal can still hear us.

The other song on loop around my brain on the flight home was Will the Circle be Unbroken, as performed by Willie Nelson. It is one of the red-headed stranger’s classic close-down-the-house pieces, a glory-be foot-stomper about the sweet by-and-by posing the great existential questions - What happens next? Will the circle - of life, time, and space - be unbroken when we die? Willie doesn’t answer the question, but there is a faith in his voice, for that circle in the sky, the one even greater than the circles we make on earth around the sun. Or perhaps he simply decided that the best we can do is make a joyful noise - raise your hands and lift your gaze. It gives me great comfort to know Neal had the opportunity to collaborate with the red-headed stranger. If there is an angel still amongst us, it is Willie Nelson. To be in Willie’s presence is to be blessed for the journey, both here and beyond.

Of course, we never know who the angels really are amongst us. In retrospect, Neal sure seemed like some kind of rock-n-roll angel to me - an unlikely guitar hero with a heart of gold. For his journey to the sky, let him hear how much he meant to us. Say it out loud, to each other. Sing his praises. Go and see his friends make music. We owe it to him, for all the great memories he shared with us, to be more like him - to give everything we’ve got to the eternal circle, and even in the dark, reflect back the light.

Sat, 11/02/2019 - 3:32 pm

It’s been five years

In November 2014, I penned an anonymous love letter to Amorica for her 20th birthday. It was such a thrill to have it posted on Rich Robinson’s Facebook page that month, not only because I considered it an honor. Connecting with so many others over the album made me feel like I had found my tribe, a rare sensation in these fractured times. At the time, I concluded with a plea to the band to throw a surprise party for Amorica. I remember thinking, but not writing it because it seemed too ominous - Do it now, before it’s too late! Little did I know, just a couple months later, on January 15 2015, the Black Crowes would disband. The exact date is seared into my brain because I couldn’t help but take it as a bad omen that my favorite band actually broke up on my birthday! I’ve been waiting for a good sign ever since.

Finally, I think I got one. Just as I was finishing a follow-up piece for Amorica’s now 25th anniversary, the two Crowes logo was spotted on a billboard above the Lincoln Tunnel. There is a lot of buzz right now about a possible tour next year. My fingers and toes are crossed, but I try to remind myself - there was a lot of buzz about a tour five years ago too…and then they broke up!

In an effort to not get ahead of ourselves, let’s just take a moment to celebrate what is in front of us now. Our dear Amorica is twenty-five years old today, and it is not nice to forget a lady’s birthday. Even if that lady has pubic hair peeking out from her bikini line.

Happy Birthday, Amorica!

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Amorica Lost and Found

The Black Crowes’ Amorica turns a quarter-century-old on November 1st and I cannot stop myself from asking the most cliché of questions - Where did the time go? It is impossible to fathom, the collective twenty-five-year experience of this album’s fans. Times have been kind and cruel, and not always in the right measures. We have been blessed and deprived, lived in grace and despair, fell in love and fallen apart. If we are here, we have survived, and likely learned how to make a space inside for those departed. In twenty-five years, we lost an innocence we did not know we had.

There is almost nothing that can make me feel like it is 1994 again, but Amorica is a time machine that works. It may not have been the soundtrack of the nineties according to VH1, but the Pacific Northwest bands they would pick to represent the decade’s rock-n-roll just don’t take me back. Don’t get me wrong, I wore plenty of flannel in the nineties, but maybe the despair of grunge is just far too au courant these days to elicit nostalgia. Amorica captures how I actually felt. On the outside, I may have been trying to look disaffected in shades of Seattle grey, favoring dark colors and baggy clothes; my Cherry Doc Martins were about as bright as I would go. I lingered in coffee shops with my comrades, silently coding existential ambiguity through the fog of our cigarette smoke. But inside, I felt a lot more like Georgia – ripe green with the kind of energy that lingers low there in the humid air - a swampy mix of emotion, restless desire, and a longing to escape.

In 1994, I was one year out of college and had fled the Northeast. Unlike many of my peers who went West, I first went South, and with my liberal arts degree took a minimum wage job at a dry-cleaning establishment in Austin, Texas. Though I had been drawn there in part by Linklater and his Slackers, I somehow lacked enough self-awareness to consider myself one of them. Not surprising really; I have always felt like more of an outsider than an insider. Generation X – we were confronted with an existential crisis in our very label before we even had a chance. Wandering around like a tribe of lost latch-key kids, whoever named us wanted to make it clear how little we mattered. A few years earlier on the Crowes’ first album, She Talks To Angels had called out to us while most of us were still kids - She’ll tell you she’s an orphan, after you meet her family. They understood.

Amorica would let us know they weren’t having any of it. Refusing to let music reinforce our negation, like rock-n-roll warriors, the Black Crowes fought the good fight, laying down their third album in the trenches of L.A., the antithesis of Seattle. They would never abandon the guitar gods or the muses of melody. Chris Robinson was not a front man who was about to sit still and hide behind his hair, and he kept right on singing loud and clear all the way through the garbling, groaning and growling of the nineties. Wearing bell-bottoms and black eyeliner, with all the bravado of a dirty hippie Sinatra, he throws down his own My Way with the closing lyrics to Amorica’s opening track, Gone. You can almost hear the hip thrusts punctuating each line - Wasted. My way. I’m gone.

But the Black Crowes were never more here. These were not the lyrics of a nihilist, and we know that for certain because of the way the music sounds. Amorica is in fact a Ballad in Urgency, packed with songs that originated from the hips, gut, and heart. Time itself would be Gone with a vengeance we never saw coming. The Black Crowes were just there to record 54 minutes and 13 seconds of it - of a band Descending deep into rock-n-roll.

Did they call their album Amorica because they realized they were patriots of a sort? If it was a call to arms, it worked. The true Amoricans responded, and we still do. In the winding road that has been the career of the Black Crowes, we keep following them. I have just one tattoo on my foot - the hobo symbol for “hit the road”. When someone inquires and I tell them what it is, they assume I love to travel, which is true, so I usually just leave it at that. What I don’t tell them is that “hit the road” was actually a warning sign to fellow travelers – keep moving, it is is not safe to stay put. I don’t want to get into why that has meaning for me personally. Let’s just say that for some people, the road is essential. If I had to explain my tattoo in a song it would be Amorica’s Wiser Time. I am a true believer in pushing through the hard miles to get to the ones where we feel like we can part the seas, never settling, reaching for glory beyond our means. I won’t follow a preacher or politician, but I will always pledge allegiance to Amorica.

Amoricans everywhere, join me in honor of her 25th, and don’t forget to hit the road and turn it up. To the miles behind and the miles to go – to Amorica!