Our Friend Neal, and Freak Family Flashbacks Foreshadowing Future Faith.
Good morning everyone from the Raven’s Reels Almanac.
I feel as If I’m standing up in the middle of a dirt road in a small western town, brushing the dust, dirt and clay off the shoulders of my duster jacket, and looking at all the wood buildings around, staring blankly but waiting.. looking… for the faces in the windows of the saloon to appear… the women in their houses with their kids… the horses to roll by. But the town is silent. People are scared to peek out.
I’m trying to say I feel like I’ve woken in or from a dream, I’m not even sure which at this point. I’m in a familiar place, but somewhere I’ve never been. I’m looking for my friends, and they’re all gone. They’re close, but they’re not close enough to see. I know they’re there… waiting for someone else to look out a window first… then they will.. but not until then. No one wants to be the first to step outside…So still they wait. And here I stand, looking for someone to tell me it’s ok, that I’m where I should be, where I know I expected I would land, and that everything is ok.
How did we get here? Fuck if I know. Hell I thought things were going great. I mean there were a few bumps in the road, a wizard walked away, probably just for a little while; but I was ok with it. There was going to be a break; but I was ok with it. Faith, family, friends… It would get us through. Because this shit was special.
There are very few magical places, that become the stuff of legend. The early days of the Grateful Dead I think were like that… this great band, bound to the left coast. Little clubs, psychedelia, LSD, big names… but it was all before it got “famous” and out of touch for the common man. Man, I remember going to see Fugazi in New York City. $10 a fucking ticket. Seriously! Are you kidding me???? That was magic.
Comparatively, just in August, I saw Hootie and the Blowfish. HOOTIE AND THE BLOWFISH. $150 a ticket! We went because we live in their hometown, it’s kinda the thing to do. They put on a good show. But $150 a ticket. $15 per beer. $50 shirts. $20 parking. Dinner beforehand. 15,000 people and I knew my wife and the 2 people we went with. That’s a lot of people to be at a show with that I don’t know…. Oh wait there’s someone I know. They’re fucking drunk as hell. There’s some other people I know… they walked away. There’s Darius Rucker, 200 yards away. I wonder if he’s staying in Columbia tonight? I wonder… oh the bus left? Huh. Oh well. Good show.
It is hard to see the forest – for the trees that surround us all get in the way. But with the Chris Robinson Brotherhood, you knew where you were. You could see the forest. You could see each tree. You could see each person in the forest with you, and they’d smile back at you. By the end I could be at any show, and spend as much time dancing and singing as I did meeting people. There was Chris Robinson, singer of the legendary Black Crowes. Amazing. This ticket’s got to cost a hundred… oh… no? $25? Really? OK well it will be like in the upper… oh, it’s a club? OK well that’s cool, I guess they’re trying to build a fol… oh, been doing this 8 years? Wow. OK. The backing band must not be that goo…. Oh, they’re THAT good?
The CRB was magic. They are magic. The scene is magic. The scene was magic. The scene will be magic. Jeff Hill, Tony Leone, Adam MacDougall, Neal Casal… not to mention Pete Sears, Greg Loiacono, Joel Robinow, George Sluppick, and Muddy Dutton. Man you just couldn’t beat these guys. Incredible musicians, low cost, high energy, high talent, copious love, brotherhood, family. This was, and is fucking special. Raven. Sean. Sarkin. Chad. A threadbare audio and management group that kicked ass and took names, delivering quality night after night.
We saw our first show on 11/11/11.. Charleston, SC. Holy shit. I remember the start of the second set… the guys came on stage from the backstage… and everyone exhaled.. So much smoke. I was thinking this shit is about to get shut down. Holy God that keyboard player had more smoke in his lungs than I have in my life. And that’s saying something. Instant fans.
2015, we were in Charlotte, NC. So excited to see them YET AGAIN… we’d travel anywhere to see them. Still casual fans. Sitting on the porch of a now closed pizza place, this long haired guy comes up and is petting a dog, wearing a black CRB hoodie. My wife loves the hoodie and.. oh my.. it’s Adam. Wow so cool. He walks inside.
I’m shy. I don’t talk to a lot of people. I’m uncomfortable in crowds, I never know what to say. I get embarrassed a lot. I don’t make friends easy. My wife and I are wondering what Adam is doing inside. I said he must have gone to the bathroom… I’m gonna follow him in. Yeah I’m a stalker. Sue me. So I walk in, go to the bathroom… no one is in there. Oh well,.. that woulda been creepy anyway. I walk out, and at the bar is Adam.. Neal.. Mark Levy… Tony Leone. I walk back to our table, so excited. I tell my wife you’re not going to fucking believe this, except for CR, the whole band is in there. She said that’s cool. I’m sitting there thinking, I’m just gonna do it. I’ve never done this. You only live once. I said “Wendy, we’re about to do something totally not us…. Get up.” We walk in and I walk right up to the guys and start talking. Adam is quiet. Tony is quiet. Nice, but not talkative per se. I didn’t even recognize Mark at the time. But Neal greeted us right away. We started talking about the Grateful Dead, my friendship with David Gans, the memorabilia I sell.. and they start to tell us about this new project they’re working on called Circles Around the Sun. It’s in the works. Holy shit. So cool. We talk for 15 minutes, take a few pictures. After the show, I hang with Neal and talk about the Dead more… we share a beer together. Wow. I’m a fan, I met some great guys. Fast forward… my soul brother Chuck enters my life, I call on David Gans and Mark Pinkus from Rhino and get another meet and greet set up just for Chuck …. As a surprise. The Raven’s Reels Almanac is born and shit just happens.
We’re talking to the guys often. Greeting with hugs. Going to shows.
There’s so much more to our story with each individual in the band. The collaborations we did and still do. The circles expanding, the friendships, Stuart Levine, Brent Rademaker, Christophe Marchal, Jon Cornick… I mean, we have made hundreds of friends because of this band. Because Neal made us feel comfortable the one time I stepped out of my comfort zone and did something I never thought I’d do.
I get it guys and girls. It’s hard to listen to the CRB. It’s hard to listen to Neal. It’s hard to go back in our minds, and think what the fuck… in our present situation.
I had an employee die of a heart attack a few years ago. I didn’t know what else to say at the time but I would make myself laugh and say how dare he… if he was here right now I’d kill him for pulling that shit.
I think about the time Neal was talking to me backstage, came up out of nowhere and started asking me about my “real life”. He asked what I did for a living, genuinely interested in hearing about ME. I started talking and out of the corner some guy grabs me “Brian! Raven’s Reels Almanac! Holy shit!”. I got distracted… out of the corner of my eye, Neal waited a few seconds, and moved on. I sensed he was disappointed. I didn’t see him again at that show. The next time I saw him, I sought him out. I said Neal, we were backstage at the last show, you asked me what I did, and someone pulled me away. I am sorry. And I told him all the stuff he wanted to know, and we chatted for a while. I kept him in my mind because he kept all of us in his. We all loved that guy b/c he was accessible, friendly, interested, kind, a fucking guitar legend, he coulda charged $150 a ticket with his band, but they charged $25.. and hung out with us. They were fans of the fans, they were fans of the music. They were magic.
They are magic.
I’m writing this stream of conscious style, sitting in my La-Z-Boy, watching a CRB show on the tv… crying. Missing this stuff. Neal what the fuck man. If you were here now I’d kill you for pulling this shit on us.
I look back and think did he really KNOW how much he meant to people? Did he know how good he was on guitar? Maybe it was all too much. Maybe it wasn’t enough. Maybe it didn’t matter.
The CRB and Neal started a lot of stuff for me, for Chuck, for the RRA… We spoke a lot.. always about stuff like music, food, plans for the web, just whatever. We’d share meals. Hang on the bus, walk around town.. whatever… He asked me about me. Damn. Hindsight being 20/20, I wish I’d spent 1 minute, and said Neal, thanks for asking about me…. And just so you know Neal, if you ever get tired of being you, just call me. Call Chuck. Call my wife. You can stay at our house and just chill and watch tv. Would it have made a difference? Probably not. But I wish I could have just let him know that while he was interested in my life, we were all interested in his life, and in him being alive. It didn’t matter what he was doing, he was just a good guy. Any one of us would have been there for him.
I’d see the guys dozens of times….The last time I saw Neal was in Tennessee. We hung out after the CRB show and shared some watermelon in the back area. He knew things were winding down towards a hiatus, but we talked of all the stuff we’d help with CATS. He was so excited we were willing to help him. He said Brian, we need you and Chuck and the RRA more than ever. I said we’ll always be with you bud.
We shared several hugs. We laughed a lot. I made some jokes about music. I wanted to make extra sure he had my email address on his phone so I sent him a message… subject: Back message: Stage.
Neal replied “Fuck Yea!”. I was standing right next to him. Stupid, but we laughed about it. I was excited he wanted us to help HIM! Are you kidding me? The RRA exists BECAUSE of the band, because of CR, because of Neal, and Adam, Jeff, George, Muddy, Raven, Sarkin, Sean, Chad… we are BECAUSE of you. But you want us to help you? Hell man you don’t have to ask. We’re family.
He’d send me an email again, really soon… saying let’s get started doing stuff! I got artists going doing CATS stuff. He asked what he could do for CATS to get the word out more. I said Neal, I gotta have set lists.. it’s too hard not to, and I want you in the CRBase. He loved the idea.
He said consider it done. The next tour… which started right away… a set list out every night. He made sure I got them every time.
Neal was a great great guy, a great friend.. and he was that way to everyone I know. He was genuine. He was a god 5 feet from us on the rail, but he was just as happy dancing with me and Dan Skinner to the Texas Gentlemen.
Today on his birthday… wiping tears from my eyes, missing this guy who for years brought about music with a band that I love dearly… I don’t see any end. Neal is gone. But what he helped start with his bandmates in CRB, CATS, the Cardinals, solo, acoustic…, has created a fire and community that cannot be snuffed.
We’ve got artists making mugs, jewelry, pictures, stickers…. Music… art… record labels.. creating new bands. And we’re all tied together now. It’s not happened often. The guys left behind to carry on the legacy, were all part of it’s creation too. But today on Neal’s birthday, he’s gone… but I want to celebrate him. I still have my “real life” during the day… but I’ve got this entire other world that’s insanely cool, doing stuff I love… I wish he was still here because he was part of it.
I look skyward with tears in my eyes, a quivering lip, anger in my gut, and a desire to scream Neal what the fuck man, if I knew you were gonna try that shit and told me, I’d have killed ya. But it’s really not funny… I really mean to say Why buddy? We loved ya. I wish you knew that what you did didn’t transfer your pain into zero when you did this, but you spread it over your family and friends, for several months. And we’ve all had to deal with it.
I remain standing in the center of a dusty deserted western town. Looking around. Wiping the tears from my eyes… I again adjust my duster jacket, and straighten myself up. I hold my head high and take a deep breath.
I’m putting my hands out to my sides. Open hands. I look around at the buildings and I’m waiting for ya’ll to come out.
It’s time to stop mourning Neal, on today his 51st birthday. It’s time to start celebrating Neal. Daily. And we can’t stop.
The Almanac is going to do a giveaway today for Neal’s birthday.. LOOK FOR THE ANNOUNCEMENT! VINYL AND POSTER GIVEAWAY!
You can watch video to Neal’s birthday show from 11-2-18.. last year… streaming here. For Set 1.
You can watch video to Neal’s birthday show from 11-2-18.. last year… streaming here. For Set 2.
For those of you who say you can’t listen to Neal’s music. I want to tell you something. You can. Today, turn it on. Cry. Get it out. Then look at that man’s smile, say Happy Birthday Neal.. and give him the present he gave us. Time. We wanted more of it with him, but by not spending it listening to him and celebrating him, we’re not honoring him. I know it hurts my family and friends. But it’s time we lean on each other, and take that first step forward with those who’ve been unable. Many of us can listen to CRB. Some can’t. Yesterday needs to be the last day you can’t listen to them. Yesterday, needs to be the last day you couldn’t face hearing Neal.
So again….I’m standing here in the middle of the street. Arms out at my sides, hands open. Come out of your houses, come to the street, join in solidarity, take my hand, find strength in numbers. Eventually all of us will be here in the center of the street… the Tumbleweed in Eden will roll by…. We’ll dance tomorrow to a Sunday Sound… For today we’ll listen to Appaloosa acoustic… which I’m doing right now. CR and Neal, singing like majesty. We’ll celebrate. We’ll say what the fuck. We might even SCREAM it… then we’ll say that guy was awesome and a great friend.
We’ll end the day with a smile… we’ll say Happy Birthday Neal. My friend. I miss you. But because of you, your bandmates, your music, your friendship, your genuine self… you have left us here in solidarity. We’re in the street. But we’re no longer alone. We miss you. But we hold each other like family. You were with us in body, you will always be with us in spirit. And we fuckin love you for it.
We will never forget you, and today on your birthday, we give you the present we all wanted to give you daily when you were here… we wish you well, we wish you our love, we wish you eternal peace, we want you to know you’re always with us, in us, part of us.
Happy birthday Neal.