Jerry Was There: Neal Casal and the Grateful Dead’s Swan Song

Recently, the Grateful Dead celebrated its 50th anniversary and bid the world adieu with five Fare Thee Well performances split between Santa Clara, California, and Chicago, Illinois. The lineup onstage featured Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann along with Trey Anastasio, Bruce Hornsby and Jeff Chimenti. Offstage, another band came together to provide music before and between sets.

Led by Ventura-based guitarist Neal Casal of the Chris Robinson Brotherhood and the Hard-Working Americans, the group — dubbed somewhat jokingly Franklins of the World — also featured keyboardist Adam MacDougall, bassist Dan Horne and drummer Mark Levy.

Over the years, Casal has played a lot with Lesh and some with Weir, but he landed the gig through Kreutzmann’s son, Justin, whom Casal had previously worked with. The two first met at an event at Weir’s studio for what would have been Jerry Garcia’s 70th birthday. Casal scored and Justin directed a piece called “Move Me Brightly” for the celebration. From there, they became friends and collaborated again on the recently released Weir documentary, The Other One.

For the Fare Thee Well shows, Justin was tapped to curate archival footage and liquid light shows for the giant screens on either side of the stage. Naturally, he called Casal to set them to music. The guitarist was happy to oblige, though he had to do so blindly. Casal only knew roughly how much and what style Justin needed. “I did the music to no visuals at all,” Casal told VCReporter. “I was only working on very loose guidelines that Justin laid out for me, in terms of what kinds of rhythms he would like to hear and maybe a few vibes he’d like to go for. But that was it.”

Justin wanted completely original scores for each section, with no repeats. As Casal tells it, “I don’t think he really did the math in his head. But when I did the math, it turned out to be about five hours of music. And, if you know anything about scoring original music, that is an absolutely enormous, almost impossible, amount of music to make. But, liking a challenge, I decided to go for it.”

With budget limits and scheduling constraints, Casal and company piled into JP Hesser’s Castaway 7 Studios in Ventura for two days and knocked it all out. “We collectively wrote all of that music on the spot with absolutely zero preparation,” Casal explains. “We would have a short discussion about the key and the vibe, and maybe a couple of changes that we’d go through in the course of the piece, then go for it on the spot. Because of the amount of music we had to make, some of these pieces ended up being 15 minutes long, 20 minutes long. There’s one piece that’s 27 minutes long, which is kind of outrageous. None of us had ever done anything like that before. We’re all part of the jam world, so to speak, but this was taking it to a whole other level.”

Casal says, as players, they were all up to the task in terms of technical skill, but there was something else they would need that none of them could have foreseen. “The challenge was much more mental,” he offers. “By that, I mean having patience. There’s a level of patience required that I don’t think any of us had really reached before.”

The resulting soundscapes were heard by hundreds of thousands of Deadheads from all over the world, receiving national attention from the likes of Billboard, the Hollywood Reporter and Jambase.com. Did Casal and his crew ever get a first-person glimpse? “We went to the Santa Clara shows and we got to check it out in real time,” he says. “Adam went to all the shows. He went to Chicago, as well. It was cool to be there and see people’s reactions and hear it.”

Due to popular demand, Casal and Hesser are now working to get the project released this fall. But it won’t be under Franklins of the World. “That was a working title,” Casal says with a laugh. “We’re going to try to upgrade that.”