But Casal — guitarist in the Chris Robinson Band and an occasional member of Phil Lesh & Friends — did, and it turned into something much larger than he expected. The music he concocted with the ad hoc Circles Around the Sun band during a two-day jam session wound up being played during intermissions of the Dead’s five Fare The Well 50th anniversary shows and on Nov. 27 will be officially released — including the epic “Farewell Franklins,” which Billboard is premiered exclusively below.
“To be a part of it was just unbelievable,” Casal tells Billboard. “I used to go to Dead shows in the ’80s and ’90s, a scrappy little teenager in New Jersey, standing all the way at the back of the stadium ’cause that was the only ticket I could afford. I had no thought I could even be a million miles from the members of the Grateful Dead, let alone making music that would be involved with one of their shows. It’s the biggest surprise of my musical life, really.”
The payoff for Casal came during the first Fare Thee Well show, on June 27 in Santa Clara, Calif., when he found himself again at the back of a stadium when intermission hit and the music he’d created cam over the P.A. “It was up at a pretty good volume and everyone could hear it, so that was a nice moment for me,” he recalls. “By the end of the set break I checked my phone and had 150 texts and emails — ‘This is you! We know this is you! What is this music?!’ I was blowing up. Then I realized, ‘Oh man, our cover is blown. The word is about. Everybody knows about this. It’s not just restaurant Muzak; people are into this!’ It was pretty exciting.”
Casal was given the charge to create the Interludes by Jordan Kreutzmann, the son of Grateful Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann, who was creating visual content for the shows and also filmed the concerts. Kreutzmann told Casal he needed several hours of music, for which he grabbed CRB and Black Crowes keyboardist Adam MacDougall (another Lesh & Friends alumnus), Dan Horne (Beachwood Sparks, Jonathan Wilson) and drummer Mark Levy of The Congress. They recorded the album’s six pieces during a two-day session in April, and all four musicians channeled their inner Deadheadness into the process.
“That improvisational spirit touched us during these sessions,” Casal affirms. “It was pretty inspired, and we just tried to make music that we would want to hear as fans — like, if we were going to a Grateful Dead show, what kind of music would we want to hear when we were walking around? So we just tried to get the vibe, not to mimic anything or be exactly like the Grateful Dead at all because that’s impossible. We just wanted to create a kind of vibe that would be good for people for people to be at a show, though.”
Give the occasion, however, Casal and company did want to include some references to the Dead’s history, however — a case in point being “Farewell Franklins” which, at 25:05, is the longest piece Circles Around the Sun created.
“That song is a tip of the hat to the ‘Eyes of the World’ vibe; not exactly like the song, but just as a feeling, the breezy feeling about ‘Eyes of the World’ that was always an important pillar in their catalog,” Casal explains. The quartet had originally finished the song at about 13 minutes, but MacDougall kept playing after the other three put their instruments down. “He developed this new, simple theme he was playing over and over again. We all just stood there silently watching and listening to him do this and realized he was not finished yet, so we put our instruments back on and started another theme and developed the second movement of the song. It happened on the spot and we went on for another 10 minutes into an entirely different feeling and sound and ended up with a 25-minute piece of music out of just trying to give Grateful Dead fans a little taste of ‘The Eyes of the World.'”
The Interludes came out well enough that Casal and the others have “batted around the idea” of doing more together, perhaps some live Circles Around the Sun dates. The responsibilities to their respective bands make that difficult, however, and if nothing winds up happening they’ll likely be OK with that, too.
“We’re riding the fence right now,” Casal notes. “There’s part of us that thinks it was just this beautiful accident and just leave it alone, and then there’s another part of us that thinks, ‘Well, maybe we can expand on this.’ It’s hard to find the time, but we’re definitely dreaming about it.”