There’s a Reward: A Reflection

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Neal asked for an epic party and he got one. The crowd was encouraged to arrive at the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester NY early Wednesday at 6:45pm for There’s a Reward: a celebration of the life and music of Neal Casal. An early start by scene standards. By 6:30 pm small crowds were making their way towards the marquee. 

Through a series of serendipitous events, the power of modern technology and social media, I arrived to the show on a charter bus from Rockaway Mall in NJ with “the old gang” from the neighborhood. Emphasis on gang, not old! This was made clear. And I was welcomed with open arms. I owe a big thanks to an old friend of Neal’s, Willa. She organized the bus and since I live nearby, welcomed me to join their group. She is warm, has a great laugh, and brought cookies for everyone. I liked her immediately. The hour and forty-five minute ride flew, this was an epic trip down memory lane, I am grateful and humbled to have been along for the journey.

The doors open, Alex Jordan’s Band is rocking in Garcia’s. In the main lobby and theater, a playlist of Neal’s favorite blues music. People are dancing, hugging, smiling, there are joyful voices, laughter and music swirling in the air. The Cap is famous for their visual projections and last night was an exceptionally moving display. Gorgeous black and white photos, slowly roll from the projection screen on stage up the walls to the domed ceiling, Neal’s photos. Neal is everywhere and it takes my breath away. It’s now all The Rolling Stones, Exile on Main St., playing over the PA. This, as it is well known now, was Neal’s favorite album of all time. 

His words appear on the main stage screen, his final wishes. Moonlight Mile is playing and there’s a spotlight on an empty chair, his jacket resting there, and his guitar. A moment of silence on stage, followed by a recording of Neal singing, There’s A Reward. Neal’s longtime friend and manager Gary was, for all intents and purposes, the host, and he steered the show with grace and humor. He introduces Dori Freeman who nearly reached out and touched the heart of each audience member with her acapella singing of Your Long Journey. The kind of performance that you actually feel, actual physical pain, but it feels good. 

Photographer Vic Brazen, Wheels N Waves Media

Next to the stage is Robbi Rob, a South African shaman, musician, dear friend of Neal’s, and an absolute character. After a few minutes of prayer and reflection, Robbie reminds the crowd this is a party, “Let’s get it on!” I can only imagine the conversations he and Neal must have had.

Photographer Vic Brazen, Wheels N Waves Media

Before he was a Cardinal, or in the Brotherhood, or a CAT, Neal was in a “power funk trio” called Hazy Malaze. Original band members Dan Fadel and Jeff Hill take the stage to bring a familiar sound but a new shape, tonight they’re a 10 piece band! Scott Metzger and Robert Randolph were standout additions to the lineup, delivering groovy, rock & roll that got a reaction out of the crowd— this is dancing music and was a highlight of the night for me, personally. 

A recording of “Sunny Side of the Street” plays next. Neal’s manager Gary tells us this is the first song Neal ever recorded, a birthday present for his dad. Sunny Side became his Dad’s favorite song and it’s easy to tell why. A song about family, and love and moving through life. His sons voice is beautiful, sweet and a little sad. It reminds me of singer song writers from the 70’s and 80’s that played in my house growing up— Stevie Nicks, Carly Simon, Jim Croce. This is accompanied by old Casal family photos. There is something about old family photos, they don’t even have to be your family, but there is comfort in seeing them. The faces, outfits, and homes are all vaguely familiar. They could be your family. 

Mapache, a favorite group and friends of Neal’s, came up too. Though it is just the two men and their guitars, the acoustic duo reaches and fills every corner of the large room with their unique sound— it is soulful and a little bit country, cosmic Americana sounds. It is music that you want to listen to with the ones you love. You can tell why Neal loved them. You started to see this throughout the night. All very different people, cut from the same cloth.

Scott Metzger delivers a solo performance of a song that “[he] and Neal both love”, 1952 Vincent Black Lightening by Richard Thompson. “Red hair and black leather, my favorite color scheme.” The epitome of cool. 

The stage was a revolving door of friends and band mates, switching up and trading turns on stage. Everyone from Neal’s first band, Exire— think BIG hair and heavy metal— to almost all of Almost Dead, Joe Russo, Scott Metzger, Dave Dreiwitz, and Tom Hamilton with Adam MacDougal on piano. 

When Circles Around the Sun was first introduced to the world during set break at the Grateful Dead’s Fare Thee Well shows in the summer of 2015. What was meant to hold people’s attention for moments in between, did much more than that. CATS took on a life of its own. People were hooked, demanded more and CATS answered. They began touring and took their sound beyond Dead re-imaginations to create more of their own original music. My first-time hearing CATS was a live late night performance at Gramercy Theater during Phish’s Baker’s Dozen run at Madison Square Garden. This was a marathon couple of weeks for live music fans and artists alike in New York City. I had every intention to stay for a song or two and cut out early (late) to get some much-needed sleep but that did not happen. For the next several hours myself and everyone else were dancing Circles Around The Sun.

The music could not be denied then and cannot be denied even now. It was when Circles Around the Sun took the stage with Eric Krasno on guitar for Neal’s parts— that I felt a relief that the music would go on. Krasno is also on the lineup for upcoming CATS tour dates. The audience collectively held its breath and without missteps or hesitation, CATs launched the crowd in a dizzying fifteen/ twenty-minute journey to a different dimension. Every CATS fan has reason to celebrate as it’s clear the music will live on, as were Neal’s wishes.

As it turns out, our bus driver, too would not be denied.

We had to make our way out just as CRB was getting set to take the stage. Back on the bus, the second half of submarine sandwiches are taken out of coolers, a few more beers heard cracking, and then the music is back— “gimme little drink! from your loving cup … “. We listened to the final songs of the night from Chris Robinson Brotherhood as they played over a speaker, someone in the front of the bus had the Relix Live stream. Technology for the win, again.

I sit towards the back of the bus with four (five if you count the guy who fell asleep) of my new friends, Neal’s friends. One of the guy’s has the video pulled up on his iPhone. The stage is overflowing with musicians, friends. The five of us clap along with the audience at the Cap as they play the final notes of Ship of Fools. “Do you think he’s up there, watching all this, and happy?”, Kathy asks. “Yea, he is. Not because it’s his tribute.  But just because he wanted to hear good music”.

The night was in many ways a reflection of the man himself— thoughtful, sensitive, genuine, and cool as hell.

You can tell a lot about a person by their friends, and if it’s possible my affection for Neal has grown larger since last night, in getting to know these kind people. We pile off the bus around 2:30 am, the mall parking lot now deserted. I hug my new friends and thank them again for letting me join them. I hope I see them again. 

This is something I never wanted to write— my review of an evening of music honoring the life and music of a musician whom I love, who is gone far too soon. 

There’s a Reward: a celebration of the life and music. Rest easy Neal.

photo stories: vIC Brazen, wheels n waves media

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