Circles Around the Sun Finally Speaking the Same “Language” Since Neal Casal’s Passing: Part 2 

June 2, 2023
Marty Halpern

Circles Around the Sun’s (CATS) fourth album “Language” officially completes the changing of the guard on guitar for the band. John Lee Shannon has cemented himself as the replacement for CATS founder Neal Casal giving the band a consistent sound and direction after eight years of chaos and uncertainty that would have sunk any project, musical or otherwise. 

Shannon sparkles as he continues the cosmic disco groove the band created in their 2020 self-titled release. CATS initially turned to jam band heavyweights Eric Krasno and then Scott Metzger to fill in for Casal after his passing in 2019. Both musicians left their unique stamp on the band’s sound in their brief time and kept CATS moving forward. With two seemingly ideal replacements for Casal, scheduling and an unprecedented global pandemic created two immovable roadblocks that would end both musicians’ journey before they had a chance to get started. 

Those are just two roadblocks that have caused CATS to stop and start multiple times since their formation in 2015. Ironically, after all the roadblocks, wrong turns, or dead ends, Shannon was Casal’s choice to replace him from the start. According to keyboardist Adam MacDougall, Casal let it be known he wanted Shannon as his replacement in a note he left for the band before his passing.  

In Part 2 of Slide&Banjo’s in depth interview with MacDougall, he reflects on the early days of CATS with Casal and how they were able to trampoline into the middle of the jam band universe. “It’s amazing considering we didn’t tour much for most of our career. Neal and I were in Chris Robinson Brotherhood and that band stayed on the road a lot. We didn’t have time to tour with CATS. We were super lucky that hundreds of thousands of people were listening to the Fare Thee Well shows. We had a huge leg up and the band couldn’t have existed without that. We could tour nationally without having to make a name for ourselves. We could get a couple of hundred people into a club in the middle of the country without any real legwork. We had been a band for two years before we played ten shows. It wasn’t until right before Neal passed, we started taking it seriously.” 

MacDougall continues, “The beginning was literally a bunch of guys who had never played together in a room trying to find a couple of chord changes we can bop around on for the next 15 minutes. We never did that again. The second record was more composed. We had a lot of ideas from touring after the first record. We were coming up with lots of stuff from soundchecks. A lot of the jams from the first record were turning into things. We were like this jam section is totally new. It’s not on the first record. We can make a new song out of this. That’s how the second record happened.” 

As the band buckled down and hit the road, their future was literally traveling in the same van. “That’s how we met John.” MacDougall remembers. “That’s why it took me a while to see how he can do what he’s doing in CATS. John and (current Grateful Shred guitarist) Zeph Ohora came on tour with us. I had only known John playing acoustic. They opened for CATS. After every show he would sit there and play this nylon string guitar for hours. Neal would sit there and drool on that shit he couldn’t do.” 

With two albums and several tours of their trippy take on the Grateful Dead, CATS met up with drummer Joe Russo in the studio. The resulting 2019 EP “Circles Around the Sun Meets Joe Russo” (Royal Potato Family) was a dramatic departure from the extended spacy jams the band had been creating. Instead, the improvised studio session created a tight, super fast paced sound the band had never approached before. It was an eye opener. CATS was way more than a one trick pony only capable of trippy “Interludes for the Dead.”  

MacDougall points directly at Russo for getting the most out of everyone during those sessions. “That was all Russo. We were trying to get it going in the studio. Nothing was happening and it was lame. We were listening to stuff in the control room. Russo gets up and goes “C’mon guys, fuck this shit.” He riled us up. “Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go.” And that’s when it happened. He got frustrated with us being, is this cool or is that cool. He was like, “Fuck you guys, let’s go play.” He was so aggressive about playing, we all fell right in. He literally yelled at us and all the stuff we used on the record happened after that.”

Casal passed in August 2019 at the same time this EP was released. Unfortunately causing one of CATS best musical efforts to go unnoticed as the music world mourned the loss of one of its most well respected ambassadors.  

If not for a note Casal left for the band expressing his desire for CATS to continue, things would have shut down right here. The band that was never meant to be a band had a good run. They created their own genre of music. Rode its wave for a bit.  Now they could go back to their pre-CATS musical ventures.  But Neal’s instructions were clear, and MacDougall, Dan Horne, and Mark Levy were set on finding a replacement and fulfilling one of Casal’s last wishes. 

The trio first turned to Eric Krasno to cover the tour dates they had on the books. As the calendar moved into 2020, Scott Metzger took over on guitar. CATS third life set out on a winter tour filled with great music and a great atmosphere each night. With Metzger on board, the founding members were sure they had found Casal’s replacement. They could fulfill his wish and keep CATS rolling. 

Just when life looked like easy street for the revamped band, Covid stepped in, and the world along with CATS latest version shut down. It wasn’t lost on MacDougall at that time how the band’s sound was constantly changing as frequently as the lineup. “The band is completely different depending on who the guitar player is. As tragic as the Neal departure is, it’s an interesting experiment to see what happens to three players of a four-piece band when you keep interchanging the fourth member. We were a completely different band when we played with Eric Krasno. We did a couple of tours with him. Then we got Metzger, and it was a completely different band with Metzger than we were with Neal or Kras. The Metzger thing was cool. It was New Yorkey and hip and out there. It was way more intelligent. It felt like we were in a snazzy sports car with Metzger. It was super fun to play with him.” 

While the world lived in social distance mode, the Scott Metzger version of the band hit the studio in New York. The first time without their founder and leader Casal.  MacDougall recalls these sessions that created enough material for an album but has never seen the light of day. “We had Metzger in for a New York session. He’s hot at New York sessions. It was great stuff. We had a day in the studio. Scott was like, “Cool. I’ll do all my overdubs.” He’d do one and was like “Next song, let’s go. Next song.” I was like, I just want to roll a joint and take a break. He was “No, next. Let’s go.” It was really cool. We had started a record with him. A bunch of ideas we came up with him.  We got together for a couple of days and just played. We came up with riffs and motifs. Then we got together again later in the same place and recorded some basics. It was way looser obviously than what we just released. The band at that point was looking to do something more like the first record which was literally jamming in the room. Then going back and doing some overdubs. Sadly, the scheduling thing didn’t work out. JRAD took up too much of Scott’s time. When Scott left, we had to ditch things. We were trying to do something more open and rawer with Scott. So somewhere out there are some cool recordings.” 

With Metzger no longer available, CATS turned to Shannon, the same guy who amazed Casal in the tour van years earlier to take the helm at guitar. The results instantly justified Casal’s faith in his protégé. The band’s cosmic disco sound is Shannon’s sweet spot. This was obvious when CATS fourth life toured to support 2020’s “Circles Around the Sun.” Shannon cannonballed into the CATS pool meshing perfectly with the band and the disco sound they were focused on.  

MacDougall says Shannon’s passion has opened his own ears and created several musical roads he wants to explore. “John has a huge fascination with disco. I only scratch the surface on it. He gets deep in that shit. I’ve been getting more obsessed with percussion. We played all our own percussion on the record. I’d love to add a percussionist to the band.” He adds, “With Metzger, that version of CATS may appeal to people who like Bill Frissell. That’s gone. We’re embracing that disco sound and I’m really into that. I’m coming back to the stuff I did when I was a kid in high school. I wanted to be in a band like Funkadelic. I wanted to make people dance all night and have fun doing it. So, I’m back to it after a 30-year run of trying all kinds of other things. Just trying to get people in a club to dance.”    

As the latest version of CATS ventures into a world without Casal’s musical contributions, his presence in the band is everlasting. “Neal is always on my mind.” MacDougall reflects. “We’re still using his gear. We have his pedals and amps. It’s there. John and Neal were real buddies. He really looked up to John immensely. He was producing records John was playing on and his greatness was tripping him out.”  

MacDougall has a clear vision for the future. “My dream with CATS, is the same I had with Neal. I really thought it would happen and hope it still does. We opened for Greensky Bluegrass in 2017 or ‘18. We got to play the Beacon in New York. I’m from New York and went to high school there. The Beacon is one of my spots. It’s beautiful and sounds good. This was a time when CATS had a bunch of wind under our sails. It was about a year before Neal passed. I was sitting there thinking we should be headlining this place, not opening. I think we were in a place where that could happen in a couple of years. Then everything crumbled. It would be a dream to headline that place.” 

He concludes, “The rhythm stuff John brings in is a big move for me. I like the same stuff. Focusing on the rhythm not the leads. It’s hard to do that with a band with no vocals. We’d love to see more people come out. In a perfect world, it would be like “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” A place where people feel comfortable wearing weird shit. Doing whatever the fuck they want. It’s a dance. Take whatever you want to take. Wear whatever you want to wear. Hang out with who you want to hang out with and boogie. There are no heavy themes. Nothing political. Get sparkly. Have a good time. No shame. No guilt. That’s us.” 

Jason Crosby Works His Way from Sideman to Main Man 

March 10, 2023
Marty Halpern


The list of musicians Jason Crosby has worked with is a who’s who of multiple genres of music. He tackled pop music with Jenny Lewis. Rocked with Susan Tedeschi, Derek Trucks, James Taylor, Jackson Browne, and Pete Seeger. He’s a mainstay in the Jam band world performing/recording countless times with Jimmy Herring, Oteil Burbridge and the Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir and Phil Lesh.  

With a perpetually packed schedule, Crosby rarely gets the time to release a solo record. His latest release “Gilder” is an homage to the same musicians he’s stood side by side with for years.  

“Gilder” is simple. It’s Crosby on piano for eleven songs. There’s one original, one from his late brother Chris who the album is dedicated to. The rest are covers of the wide variety of musicians he’s been performing with his entire career. spoke with Crosby about his latest release and the incredible road he’s traveled as a sideman for music’s elite. He begins with a unique source of inspiration for “Gilder.” 

“One place to point is Neal Casal. When he passed, Gary Waldman, his manager and my good friend, told me they were thinking about making a tribute album. Gary asked if I’d cover one of Neal’s songs. We decided I would play a solo piano version of “Pray Me Home.” I recorded it on my voice memo and sent it to Gary. He texted me back saying this is exactly what I want you to do.” 

Crosby, who tours with Jackson Browne continues, “I played it for some of Jackson’s band mates. They said they’d listen to a whole record of music like this. Separate from that, Dave Schools (Widespread Panic) and Blue Rose’s Joe Poletto made the same comment. It was like if all these people from different places were saying the same thing. It’s probably a good idea to explore.  

I decided, why don’t I pay tribute to all the artists I’ve worked with. I played one of Jenny Lewis’s songs “Taffy.” I was just sitting at my house at the grand piano, and I played it into my voice memos and texted it to her. Her response was so heartwarming. She was touched and loved it. Her reply inspired me to continue doing it.” 

From there, Crosby says the momentum kept growing, “Based on the positive feedback, I kept going. That was how I did it. I’d record one, send it to the artist and if I got their approval I’d move on. Honestly, the process of creating it was almost as rewarding as the album coming out. Those artists were the reason I did it and it was a very cool process.”   

What stands out most in “Gilder” is Crosby’s ability to pinpoint the heart of each song and translate it perfectly through his grand piano. He says finding the proper interpretation took some wrangling. “I didn’t write anything out. I chose tunes I thought I had inside me and I knew pretty well. I’d sit down and start playing it from my knowledge of the song. Then I would start to mess with it. How can I reharmonize it. How can I alter the melody or the arrangements. What will make it interesting and exciting for the format of solo piano. When you’re playing the solo piano version of a song where the lyrics are the key element and you don’t have that, you have to take it to different places to keep it musically interesting.” 

The album was recorded in two sessions and features Crosby’s take on Mahavishnu Orchestra’s “Lotus on Irish Streams,” Browne’s “Color of the Sun,” “Unbroken Chain” from the Grateful Dead along with “Taffy” and his brother Chris’s “Headed Down to the Library.” That’s just the first session.  

The second includes James Taylor’s “Wandering,” Oteil Burbridge’s “Water in the Desert,” Father John Misty’s “Ballad of a Dying Man,” Pete Seeger’s “Take it from Dr. King,” Mother Hips “Seward Son” and Crosby’s “Almost Thursday.” A voyage all over the musical map.  

Covering so many genres with so many different musicians gives Crosby pause to avoid a Spinal Tap moment, He begins, “I love every genre I’ve been employed to play. They are very different and sometimes I have to remember what scene I’m departing and which one I’m entering. When I play with Jenny Lewis, I love her. That music requires a different head space than playing with Jimmy Herring.” 

“The same going back and forth with Phil and Jackson.” Crosby posits, “Phil loves a dixie land style of improv with multiple solos going on at the same time. With Jackson it’s very much the opposite. Every part has its place. Every note has its own formula. I’ll know that and still slip up at times. Phil will give me that look like play more. Or I’ll think I’m playing sparse enough and Jackson will look and be like can you play a few less licks on that one. I love all of it and I’ve learned so much.” 

Crosby adds, “The lucky part of my journey is I learned how to play the blues on the B.B. King tour with Susan Tedeschi in 2000. I’d play with the Blind Boys of Alabama and Robert Randolph and learned how to be in the gospel style. Playing with Jenny Lewis and Jackson was how I learned the Los Angeles pop singer sound. For me it’s a music education.”   

Like numerous East coast musicians, Crosby headed west for the exploding San Francisco music scene in 2013. Thanks to a serendipitous moment with God Street Wine, he hasn’t left. “A lot of people were taking notice and migrating there. TRI (Bob Weir’s studio) was in full force. Terrapin Crossroads (Phil Lesh’s club) was opening. Sweetwater had just been renovated.  On God Street Wine’s 20th anniversary, they did a broadcast from TRI. Matt Busch their manager and manager of Bob Weir, wanted to turn them on to Bob and Phil. The band brought their original lineup. I joined as a special sixth man.” 

He muses, “The moment that made the shift to California happen was a gig in Terrapin. There was only one keyboard at the bar that was in use. I couldn’t play keys but had my violin. Phil was sitting next to Matt and was like who the hell is that guy playing the violin. Phil asked me for my info, hit me up and invited me to play with him at the Wellmont.” 

After a couple of sit ins with Weir, Crosby says his California fate was sealed. “Matt kept pushing me up. He said Bobby had a cancellation for his Weir Here broadcast. I was staying with Shanna Morrison (Van’s daughter) and brought her. Bob loved it and asked if I’d come back and play again next week. When he didn’t call the next week, I was like oh shit.” 

“The next week, a couple of hours before the show he called and said what do think of coming by today. I was like hell yeah. At that one, I said I was thinking about moving here. Bob said if you do you can keep playing. It was crazy to have two principals of the Grateful Dead asking me to play with them. I knew I’d have to be in San Francisco to make it work so I packed up and moved. Everything that’s happened in the last 10 plus years is due to that.” 

Crosby tells he’s already completed a second volume of tributes which includes covers of Weir, Herring, Tim Bluhm and will have a few unique elements “Gilder” did not.  

After a career of musical highlights only a select few achieve, Crosby admits sometimes he has to step back and take it all in, “It’s priceless. I still get the fanboy when my phone buzzes and it says James Taylor text message or Jackson Browne text message. Or if it’s a call from Phil Lesh. I still get the shiver like oh my god this is my life. These are my peers and friends. It’s humbling.   

If I’m playing with Oteil, someone I have a history with back to the 90’s. To see where we’re at now. He’s been in the Allman Brothers and Dead and Company since then. To see his progression and see his journey along side him, it brings a sense of accomplishment and fulfilling emotions. Then there’s the surreal side. My favorite Dead stuff was the 70’s Blues for Allah era. When I’m playing that with Phil and Bob and we hit a certain chord or passage that brings me back to my childhood, it’s literally hair raising.” 

Crosby concludes, “The same thing goes when James Taylor was on the Jackson tour. James played with us every night. I was playing Jackson’s piano with James in between Jackson and myself. I was like how did this happen? In the moment I try not to think about it because I don’t want to lose focus and get emotionally overwhelmed. 

A lot of times it’s post show reflection or even years later reflection on some things. When I would play with John McLaughlin, I’d walk to Jimmy Herring during the bows. I’d give him a hug and say can you believe we get to do this? And get paid to do so. Musicians want to play. When you play in those prime situations, that’s why you do it. That’s why you spend 50 nights straight in a hotel. Or 13 hour flights. I earn my money the other 22 hours a day I’m not playing.” 

Jason Crosby “Gilder” 2022 Blue Rose Records 

Photos William Coupon and Jason Crosby

Kenny Roby’s New Day comes to life

August 24, 2022
Marty Halpern

Like any musician in the business for over a quarter of a century, Kenny Roby has noticeable scars from his journeys. From his early 6 String Drag days through his solo career, he has battled demons. Addiction, friends dying, getting sober, staying sober…the usual list. While many have been derailed by these battles, Roby continues to emerge stronger than ever. His latest self-titled release, “Kenny Roby,” (Royal Potato Family) is a testament to his staying power. 

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CATS Recasts with Neal Casal Disciple

March 3, 2022
Marty Halpern

When Circles Around the Sun (CATS) founder Neal Casal passed away in 2019, it was clear his wish was for the band to keep at it, a big challenge for a band that was never meant to exist. When the dust settled after Casal’s death, bassist Dan Horne, keyboardist Adam MacDougall, and drummer Marc Levy followed their leader’s wishes, and kept the music going.

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Circles Around the Sun Sets Course for A New Orbit

March 9, 2020
Marty Halpern

Photography by Piper Ferguson

When the members of Circles Around the Sun (CATS) met to discuss the musical direction they wanted for their next album, it didn’t take the quartet very long to reach a unanimous decision – they wanted to put out a dance record. Not just any dance record; a retro disco sound with plenty of cosmic vibe to it. 

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Circles Around the Sun to release last recordings with Neal Casal

December 13, 2019
Slide & Banjo

Circles Around the Sun has announced they will release a self-titled album, the band’s third, on March 13, 2020. The release will be comprised of their band’s last studio recordings with late band member/guitarist Neal Casal. The tracks were recorded in southern California a week before Casal took his own life. In a sad twist, Casal left behind a note that requested the band carry on with the music and album. Remaining band members Adam MacDougall (keys), Dan Horne (bass) and Mark Levy (drummer) have already announced subsequent dates without naming a permanent guitarist. Scott Metzger is on guitar for the Colorado dates through the end of the year.

Circles Around The Sun Meet Joe Russo – Fare The Well, Neal Casal

September 24, 2019
Marty Halpern

In March 2019, members of Circles Around the Sun (CATS) and drummer Joe Russo got together for an improvised jam and recording session at The Bunker studio in Brooklyn, Mixed by New York-based engineer Jim Scott (Tedeschi Trucks Band/Tom Petty) and CATS bass player Dan Horne, the end result was the 24-minute, aptly-named four-song EP Circles Around the Sun Meet Joe Russo.

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Neal Casal tribute planned with Chris Robinson, Joe Russo, Dave Schools & more

September 12, 2019
Slide & Banjo

A tribute to Neal Casal has been announced for Wednesday, September 25 at The Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, NY. Casal’s former bandmates and associates will get together to pay tribute; Casal tragically took his own life on August 26. The late guitarist last played with Circles Around the Sun but had played with Ryan Adams, Chris Robinson Brotherhood and the Hard Working Americans, and was a widely-respected session/studio guitarist.

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Neal Casal: 1968 – 2019

August 27, 2019
Slide & Banjo

Neal Casal, guitarist for bands such as as Circles Around The Sun, Chris Robinson Brotherhood, Ryan Adams and the Cardinals, and Hard Working Americans has died at age 50. The following statement was posted on Casal’s social media accounts:

“It’s with great sadness that we tell you our brother Neal Casal has passed away. As so many of you know, Neal was a gentle, introspective, deeply soulful human being who lived his life through artistry and kindness. His family, friends and fans will always remember him for the light that he brought to the world. Rest easy Neal, we love you.”

Reports from Casal’s representation confirm the guitarist committed suicide. His body was discovered Monday night. Casal played as part of Oteil and Friends this weekend at Lockn. A new album, Circles Around The Sun meets Joe Russo, is due out in October. Casal and CATS had several tour dates scheduled later this year to support the new album.

 Aside from being a talented musician, Casal was also an accomplished photographer.

Anyone in need of help can reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1–800–273–8255 or to chat with someone online.