Chuck Berry had to be smiling on Sunday, April 9. It was a beautiful spring day and the crowds had come to see him one last time at The Pageant on Delmar Avenue. They just wanted to say goodbye to an old friend they grew up with.
St. Louis is a city blessed with musical talent and history. Chuck Berry and Scott Joplin are its bookends. Both drew on the blues to change the course of twentieth-century musical history. Joplin took the blues as a base and urbanized it for an entirely new genre of music, ragtime, which influenced the development of jazz.
Fifty years later Chuck Berry took those same blues and added a bit of country, R&B, a hot piano, driving beat, sweet tunes and clever lyrics to create a new music, rock 'n' roll. When you hear the term "guitar-driven," think Chuck Berry. His dazzling six-string prowess and flamboyant stage style turned his instrument's usual rhythm and fill job in a band into the starring role. His playing and songs inspired generations of musicians across the world.
Collaboration was also a key ingredient in Berry's success. Long before Lennon and McCartney or Jagger and Richards there was the duo that inspired them, Johnson and Berry. The Sir John Trio led by the legendary keyboardist Johnnie Johnson (the real Johnnie B. Goode) was a highly regarded St. Louis band in the early '50s. Johnson's guitarist had a stroke and he asked Berry to fill in for his 1952 New Year's gig.
Things would never be the same: Chuck joined the band, Muddy Waters hooked him up with Chess records, in 1955 "Maybelline" was born, and the band was renamed the Chuck Berry Band. Together they began cranking out the hits that put Berry in the Blues Hall of Fame and both Johnson and Berry in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Francis Johnson, Johnnie's widow, says "Chuck was the Maya Angelou of rock 'n' roll." Paul Shaffer (of David Letterman's Late Show) reminisced about the night Chuck asked him to play with him and said, "He was rock 'n' roll. His life coincides with its birth and, perhaps, its death."
Chuck Berry will always be alive in the memories of musicians and music lovers and especially St. Louisans. They remember him for the music, for staying true to his home town, and for making them happy and to want to dance. It is most apparent in the Delmar Loop area: the first star on the Walk of Fame outside Blueberry Hill, the memorabilia inside, the Duck Room downstairs, and the bronze statue covered in flowers and beads across the street. There is also a new portrait on the side of Vintage Vinyl that the owner, Tom "Papa" Ray, says "had been planned for some time but it was at the moment the artist began painting it that Berry died."
Joe Edwards, the owner of Blueberry Hill and a trusted friend of Berry's, has decades of memories. He calls Berry's music "a personal history book for all of us" and stressed how Berry "had a major effect on our culture with the ability to bring black and white together." The Kaldi's coffee gang (60+) remember how Berry seemed to be a constant presence on the radio: "It was like driving in the car with an old friend. There was a rhythm and a sound that fit with being young and a teenager." Dave Robinson (62) got to fish at Berry's farm and said "his whole family listened to him and the British invasion that followed." But for him, Berry "didn't get his just due until later in life. "
Today at the National Blues Museum, an entire section has been devoted to Chuck Berry and his influence. There, one can see his records, the records others made with his songs, the duck walk and the flow of his influence across the musical landscape. Terry Hardin (52) says he "grew up with the records my mother loved which started with Chuck Berry and Little Richard." Dr. Rosalind Norman grew up deep in the inner city and remembers Berry fondly: "I grew up near downtown in the late '50s and early '60s and Berry would send busses into our neighborhood to pick up kids and take us out to his farm to play and swim..... I had never been in the country. I got to go swimming in his pool. It was amazing. A person of his color who had all of this doing what he was doing. He was a role model for kids of color. He had his passion, pursued it and succeeded."
Museum visitor Regina Heard (44) said, "Chuck is music to me....the link in a chain that runs from rock and roll to hip hop." Ed Chappelle, a museum volunteer, finds "so much blues and rock 'n' roll history in each of his songs." Dave (58 -- NBM founder) and Renee Beardsley (53) "love their childhood memories of his music and the trace of Berry's pioneer roots from the Sir John Trio across the water to inspire everyone in England." And Zachary Ganet (37) simply said Berry "was a badass guitar player." Like a lot of Berry's audience from that generation, Ganet's encounter came through Back to the Future, "I first came to realize who he was when, as a kid, I saw Michael J. Fox do his guitar style."
Blueberry Hill was packed Saturday night with a crowd there to raise a glass with Joe Edwards and Johnny Rivers in a toast to the man who played 200 shows there. Many Berry family members and friends were there including Murv Seymour (52), Carl Brooks (59), Joe McKinney (75), and Charlie Cojak. Before toasting they reminisced about how good he was to his extended family and the good times at the Windemere City home and the farm. Murv said, "We loved Uncle Chuck. He was the starting point for the creation of a new genre of music that led others to copy his style. He was quietly admired." Carl chimed in saying, "He was family and he created rock 'n' roll from infinity to beyond." The family visited the Duck Room and later headed across the street for pictures with the statue.
Sunday the sky was blue and the breeze warm as limos arrived and crowds gathered outside the Pageant. Out front people entered for the open viewing, while a large line for ticketed guests formed. On the side there was another long line for the 300 public tickets that would become available at noon. Celebrities, family, friends, coworkers, musicians and the public easily co-mingled, a great representation of the way Chuck's music brought black and white fans together. It was easy to ask folk "Why did you come today?" or "What did Chuck Berry mean to you?" Their responses tell the rest of the story.
There was a large contingent of Berry family present. Eric Johnson (55) was there with his family. He recalls learning "My Ding-A-Ling" in the '70s but, he said, "You couldn't sing it around the house; you had to sneak outside." Cousins Diane Johnson (66) Marilyn King (79) and Eric Smith (46) all praised his lasting legacy and the doors he opened for other musicians.
David Selby (66) and Patrick Roche (64) worked for Berry. Selby said Berry was a role model: "He was very brilliant, dedicated to his family and believed in God. He taught me about business and life and how to treat people." Daniel Rossing, (32) a pianist from Norway, played with Berry in Europe. He grew up listening to his parents' records of Chuck. "Getting to play with him was a dream come true," he said, "I had to be here."
Stefano Francioso (51) loved the sound of his Gibson ES35 and Dual Show amps and his lyrics: "Everyone had shit lyrics and he could paint a picture -- 'I never seen a coffee-colored Cadillac but I know exactly what one looks like'." Michael Messey (59), a musician who played with Chuck for many years, recalled a memorable day: "I first heard My Ding-A-Ling at my cousin's. I never dreamed he would end up playing it with him years later."
Beth Zubal (55): "He was a native St. Louisan that brought great music, a new mode of upbeat music. He always stayed true to his roots living here and playing the Duck Room. People had access to his music." Antonio Scott (37) called Berry "a hometown hero," and plainly "awsometastic." Joe (68) and Jake Miklovic echoed a familiar refrain: "Chuck's music was everywhere growing up. I heard it on the river on the Admiral and at the CYC and sock hops..... Your hormones were moving and Chuck was grooving. You were young, in love and feeling great -- it made you want to dance."
Donna Diffley (67) and Dawn Smith (57) loved "his duck walk, the great hits and how he influenced all the big acts to follow and he never forgot his hometown." For Cathy Jacobs (59) and Carol Allen (57) "the music meant freedom of expression and was so much fun to dance to." Jerry Coleman (60), who played a couple of gigs with him, remembers Berry best for "breaking down racial barriers. His music brought people together and it will be here as long as we live." Tim Cladsen (51): "He influenced everyone, a pioneer."
Ray King (50) Sue Beck (61) and Eric Pritle (70) were first in line for the public tickets. Ray, a musician who "appreciated Berry's huge influence on modern music," and offered the reminder that "The Beatles and Led Zeppelin wouldn't exist without Chuck Berry." Sue says a she came to "support his family and pay respects one last time." Eric likewise came to "pay respects to one of the hardest working men in show business [who] lived a full life doing what he loved to do."
CC Winchester (40) credits Chuck Berry with making him want to be a musician. Laurie Ising (53) and Ann Smith (57) called him "the father of rock 'n' roll," and said, "As a music lover you've got to appreciate what he's done. It's important to us to pay our respects." Michelle McMurray (57) remembered the fun times she had at Blueberry Hill listening to "one of our own, a legend and always so friendly."
Ted Thien (72) remembered first seeing him in 1962 at the Gaslight Square: "He put the guitar as the lead instrument and changed music." Jeff Schieb (45) emphasized Berry's singular contribution: "It won't happen again -- breaking the norms and creating something new. You can take apart most any song and you will hear snippets of Chuck Berry." Praising the "hometown legend," Andre Louis (52), Karen (60), Ralph Morse, and Brian Flowers (61) said, "There is no better rock 'n' roll than Johnnie B. Goode. Anyone whoever picked up a guitar and played a bar chord owes it to Chuck to be here."
Gus Thornton (65), bass player with Marquise Knox, remembered Berry's early influence: "He was the first thing I listened to as a kid. Getting into the guitar, I tried to play like him. I knew Johnnie Johnson and he got me a gig with Chuck and he was always very nice to me." Elaine Foster (64) recalled, "Chuck used to play for the Sumner High Roundups. We loved his music as kids. All the girls would scream when he played and I would too." Jules Sardo (68) remembered the first time she saw the performer, "I saw him for the first time playing on a bill in '71 with Billy Peek at the Rainbow Lounge, where it cost 50 cents to get in."
Lynn Orman Weiss was in town from Chicago this week to pack up her Women of the Blues photography exhibit that had been showing at the National Blues Museum. She stayed over to attend the Chuck Berry events. When I asked her what Chuck Berry meant to her she answered with John Lennon's quote: "If they didn't call it rock 'n' roll they would have to call it Chuck Berry."
The Duck Room Stage sits empty. Chuck has left the building. He may be gone but the songs remain and St. Louis will always know the music by its real name... Hail, Hail, Chuck Berry!
To see Bob's photos of many of those quoted here in the order of the article, click the image below.
With a few candles burning, Orion staring gently through the basement window from the heavens and the first analog crackle of vinyl, Shooting Rockets Towards the Sun comes alive. The first hit of Theodore Moll's drums to Heather Moll's guitar and voice transports the listener to another place, and maybe another time. As the needle makes its way through each groove layers of melody, song and musical adventure lurk around each corner that is only discovered after repeated listens. The candles flickered and Orion radiates a little brighter as the album progresses from track to track Shooting Rockets Towards the Sun is taking the listener on a journey. "Whenever NASA wants to send something into deep space they shoot it towards the sun first for the slingshot effect," Theodore explains the approach to how this set of songs travels. "It's a space album that is not about space."
"It was the late '90s," Heather said with a bit of glee. In a voice of wonder Theodore echoed, "It was the late '90s." At that time Theodore was still circling the globe with MU330 as well as taming the drums with Climber, whom was formed with Heather, Julie Butler (now Gibbs) and jack of all trades Joey Renza. They released one full-length, an EP and one seven-inch but as Climber was coming to a close, Theodore says, he really wasn't writing, "I had a bunch of songs and Heather had a bunch of songs, and it just started from there." Theodore states. "It was more of a recording project. Theodore would lay down some weird stuff that wouldn't necessarily transfer to a live setting, especially with Climber. We would then lay down vocals and vocal melodies," Heather mused about the band's beginnings. As Climber petered out and MU330 slowed down, the duo found themselves in the studio to knock out the first Bagheera album Twelves in 2003.
2017 finds the band giving the material of the last 14 years released life on their own record label and looking towards the future. In the time between the two albums the duo focused on writing, recording, going back to school and raising a family. "If it was just Heather's band, or my band, one of us could cover the kids. All the advantages of being a two piece band where you are married and living together goes out the window when you have kids," Theodore explains of the time away. They have been able to explore their songwriting partnership in the studio, take sonic experiments and mold them into fully formed songs. "When I write it has to sound good with just me and an acoustic guitar, that is how I approach writing. Then Theodore puts in the beeps and boops," says Heather. In Theodore's words, his songwriting comes broadly from "some weird kernel of inspiration," sometimes even sparked by the give and take of deliberately using "bad equipment," he says. Over the ensuing years they culminated a sound that is a direct melding of both processes to create a unique and solid vision that was only hinted at with their debut album Twelves.
Shooting Rockets Towards the Sun continues with the same indie-rock-pop songwriting of Twelves but goes deeper and into sonic textures and tapestries -- one more telling than what appears to be a three-song suite of "Martian Influence," "Deimos Escape Velocity" and Plate Tectonics of Ceres" halfway through the album. This set of songs begins with familiarity and then quickly progresses into electronic atmospheres which then explodes in a harmonic cacophony that musically sounds like the controls have short circuited sending us on a cinematic adventure. The opening tracks "Stargazing," "Shooting Rockets Towards the Sun" and "Neptune Pt. 1" showcase the band's cleverly written material with themes of space with open interpretation for the listener to derive their own meanings. "All the songs are very personal, from our perspective. The last song, "Departing the Oort Cloud" is about my dad passing and "Neptune Pt. 1" is about our friends Dan and Shannon falling in love and getting married." Ted explains. Where Heather says that "Stargazing" came about after a midnight showing of Harry Potter. "We went to see the movie and after that I drove Ted to the airport because he was going out of town with school. We drove to the airport using the north star. That is how it came about."
It is refreshing to hear an album whose influences are felt rather than overtly heard, from Heather's love of P.J. Harvey and Throwing Muses to Ted's love of production. "When I was on tour with MU330 every night I afforded myself time before going to bed, when everyone else would be sleeping, to listen to music. I would lie with my headphones on in a dark room, and an album and I would really just listen and absorb it. There wasn't anything in the background, it was just me and the music." Those late night listenings to hear every nuance cultivated a love for experimenting and bending sound: "My approach for producing an album is how many of those elements can I use as possible. I try to make an album you cannot in one sitting listen to. I like albums you can listen to and find new little things each time." That deep study in sound helped shaped Shooting Rockets Towards the Sun. Heather explains: "Dynamics are big for me. I need stops, starts and interesting things. For a person who isn't trained as a musician, except a few months of guitar lessons when I was 13, when I sit down to write a song I am not bound by rules."
Spring finds the band in a good place. They have a stable line up with Julie Gibbs returning from her days in Climber, a new album and their own record label, Skeleton Fur. There are another two and half albums in various states of completion. Theodore explains "I could never expect any reasonable record label to put out half of that stuff. I just want to make it available in one place." Shooting Rockets Towards the Sun is pressed, ready for turntables, listener's ears and stages with the band gearing up for "more albums and more shows," says Heather with a laugh.
Bagheera's album release show for 'Shooting Rockets' starts at 8 p.m. this Friday, March 31 at Foam with guests Accelerando and Dino Fight.
Look at old photos of the Foggy Mountain Boys -- aka Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs -- and you'll notice they used a single microphone on stage. You might assume Flatt and Scruggs were limited by the sound technology available in the 1950s. Until you notice that contemporary artists like the Foghorn Stringband and Del McCoury use the same single mic approach. So does the Colorado-based FY5, formerly Finnders & Youngberg, and it works out just fine for them. I spoke with FY5's Mike Finders recently about their upcoming April 7 show at Off Broadway.
Bill Motchan: One of the distinctive things about FY5 on stage is the single mic. How did you come up with that style?
Mike Finders: The way we mic ourselves up, the way we present ourselves sonically and visually, we always try to keep a balance, and one of those things is gathering around a single mic. It's a bluegrass tradition that goes back to the earliest days of Flatt and Scruggs and Bill Monroe. They would just lean into one mic.
In bluegrass music you're all focused on one thing at one time, because everybody has a shot of going up to the mic and being front and center, and the rest of us are playing a supportive role. There is something that is powerful about that one mic performance style that goes back as far as 1940.
The first time I saw the Del McCoury band, one of the pre-eminent bluegrass bands, they were going back to the single mic approach, and I couldn't believe it. It was in a theatre in Chicago, and I remember I walked back to the sound guy and verified it, I said, "Are you kidding! You have a 50-channel mixing board and you're only using one channel." Finders said he wanted to channel other classic bluegrass styles too because he and his bandmates were looking for a purity and clearness where the music looks and sounds like they are focused on one thing.
Bill: One of the things that come up often in reviews of FY5 is how well the band harmonizes. How does a band achieve that balance?
Mike: We're really proud of our band, and one of the things that we're most proud of is our longevity. We're in our eighth year together, the same five people. Five people focused on one goal for any length of time is always an achievement. And for us to be on this mission, the chemistry, our musical sensibilities, our varying degrees of risk-taking with our playing, we were all kind of aligned and we noticed that right away before we started thinking about the music that we were going to make.
We all had similar temperaments, similar visions of what we wanted to do, and before we even started making music, we enjoying being with each other, and that's one of the things when you're in a band, different than a local band, when you're trying to establish pockets of people you play for and build a fan base, you end up spending time in the van and having meals together than you do playing, so if you don't like each other, the music's hardly worth it.
Bill: What are some of the ways the band relaxes on the road or before gigs?
Mike: Hacky sack is one of the things we always do when we get out of the car (to stretch our legs) and Ryan Drickey and Rich Zimmerman -- our fiddle and mandolin players -- they both juggle. We're trying to figure out some kind of juggling routine they could do on the stage. We also all love good coffee, so wherever we're traveling, we try to find the best coffee, we all value good food, so whatever town we go through, we just know there's going be some kind of fast food option, but we try to find something organic or non-toxic, those are the lifestyle things we all have in common.
Bill: The name FY5 is a recent change from your original band name, Finders & Youngberg. Why did you make the change?
Mike: Rich and Ryan, the two guys that aren't named Finders or Youngberg, they have been just as integral to the band as the other members. "Finders and Youngberg" sounds like an accounting firm or something. Sometimes a band gets stuck with a name, and changing it was hard, too, because there's websites and search engines, and stuff. We wish it would have been FY5 from the beginning, But, we're going to stick with that for now. It looks better on a T-shirt, too.
Bill: Eat The Moon is FY5's most recent album and it's getting excellent reviews. No Depression called it "wholesome, traditional and brimming with ideas plucked from years gone by." What was the inspiration for the title song?
Mike: I do most of the writing. "She wants to eat the moon," this was about a girl I know and she said that to me while we were on a walk, and it really was similar to a lot of the other things about her that I observed while we were getting to know each other. Her drive in life was to experience things in a deeply tangible way, she stops and smells the roses, and if we're on a walk and we see wild grapes she'll want to stop and eat them, she wants to put her feet in the river, and she has this tangible thing, so the song was about having a such a lust for life that you would not only experience things but bring them in, so I just played with that image, and tied it back.
Bill: When FY5 played at the Sheldon in September 2015, you also led workshops at the KDHX Folk School. Do you enjoy getting to work with adults who are learning roots and bluegrass music in that type of setting?
Mike: Yes, Ryan Spearman asked us if we would give some lessons, and three of us are trained teachers. Bluegrass is easy music to teach because it's got so many rules. We teach at least two bluegrass camps a year mostly to adults. A lot of the people stopped singing around middle school because they're voices started to change and crack, and a lot of guys who feel like 'I never should have given it up, and I'd like an outlet,' so one of the things I love to do is work with adults and almost grant them permission to sing and play, and tell them, "Yes, you can be an artist!"
Bill: You said Finders & Youngberg sounded like an accounting firm. I don't think you would have been an accountant if you hadn't started a band. What might you have been?
Mike: A teacher. I had a teaching degree. It's telling stories, getting people together. When I write a song, I hope I'm writing in it in such a way that it moves people. I imagine I would be doing something involved with telling stories.
Note: FY5 is based in Ft. Collins, Colorado. The band members are Rich Zimmerman on mandolin, Ryan Drickey on fiddle, Erin Youngberg on stand-up bass, Aaron Youngberg on banjo and pedal steel. Mike Finders, the bandleader and guitarist, is an accomplished storyteller. He is a two-time winner of the Merlefest Chris Austin Songwriting Contest.
Click the image below to see all of Bill Motchan's photos from FY5's performance at Off Broadway, April 7, 2017.
Lambchop is an enigma. It's a band that fits the definition of "cult favorite" as well as any, despite the fact that past and present label-mates on Merge Records define a large portion of the indie-rock canon -- Neutral Milk Hotel, Arcade Fire, Spoon, to name just a few. They've been around longer than any of these bands, and may outlast them as well.
Lambchop released its first record in 1994, and has maintained a consistent, shape-shifting output in the two-plus decades since. Initially shoved beneath the alt-country banner (they're genre-bending, with Americana touchpoints) they've shed that label over time and more properly defy classification. This is especially true of the band's latest release, FLOTUS, which centers the band's poetic, lounge-style sound around electronic elements for the first time.
Kurt Wagner is the center of Lambchop, guiding the group into uncharted territory as both bandleader and bard. And it was his experience with HeCTA -- an electronic/dance collaboration with fellow Lambchop members Ryan Norris and Scott Martin -- that foreshadowed Lambchop's most recent change of course.
In addition to the release of FLOTUS in 2016, Lambchop reissued its 2002 LP Is A Woman earlier this year. It's a still, observational record, built atop guitar and piano. Sitting next to the lightly pulsing, comparatively experimental FLOTUS, the reissue reminds us how deep and far Lambchop has voyaged over the past 15 years. I talked with Wagner on the phone from his home in Nashville, Tenn. The band kicks off a rare string of U.S. dates at Off Broadway on March 22.
CB: Lambchop's records tend to not take into consideration how the songs might be played live, so how do you go about taking something like FLOTUS and presenting it on-stage?
KW: Well, the interesting thing about FLOTUS, that we sort of discovered when we started thinking about performing it live, is that it's a pretty open-sounding record. It's a little sparse in a way, so it lends itself to a smaller presentation in terms of number of people. We're traveling with Andy Stack who's in Wye Oak, and he's a multi-tasking sort of musician, so he covers a lot of territory that helps fill it in. The rest of it is a trio of bass, piano, and myself.
CB: The instrumentation and arrangements on FLOTUS differ quite a bit from most of the Lambchop catalog. How do those songs feel when they sit alongside some of your older stuff?
KW: That's kind of the cool thing. Because of the openness of the presentation that we're doing, we'v found certain songs really work well in that way. In some ways, it's sort of taking the older songs and presenting them a little differently. I find that they actually work pretty well together. We're anxious to present as much of the new material as possible, but we have quite a bit of stuff. So, you know, we've found some things that seem to work really well. We've done 44 shows now with this setup, and it's really fun, it's really cool. I'm excited to do it in the U.S.
CB: Between FLOTUS and Mr. M you put out the first album by the HeCTA project. It seems like there was some bleed from that project into FLOTUS. Can make that connection a little bit more explicit for us?
KW: Mainly it was technological, learning the technology that was involved in the HeCTA project opened up a new way for me to write. I was learning about different software programs, and of course, in performing with HeCTA live, I learned about processing my vocal in a live way. Once that came about, I was able to apply that particular tool to the writing that I was doing. HeCTA is definitely a different type of thing, a thing where we wrote these songs together as 3 different artists coming together and bringing their [ideas] together. Lambchop is pretty much me sitting around coming up with the songs and then presenting them to the band. So I sort of found a new way of writing, and through that comes a new sound. But it's still Lampchop.
I used to just write singing and playing guitar onto a tape recorder, a cheap little dictaphone tape recorder. And once I started using these software programs and was able to edit and create stuff independently, then I was able to realize the songs a little bit fuller, and introduce a different way of presenting it to [the band]. It's still like, "Here's the song," but it's more realized, it has a fuller structure. The way I wrote most of FLOTUS was literally without a guitar at all. I just used a voice and computer software, and that was it, and I've never done that before. It was exciting; suddenly I'm not limited and constrained by my limited abilities as a guitar player. I can do whatever I can think of. Whatever comes out of my mouth, I can turn that into the sound of an organ, or something. It really freed me up to try different songs and structures and keys. I would never come up with the stuff on FLOTUS had I kept working the way I was doing. That's exciting and liberating.
CB: The new record and the shift in instrumentation and songwriting kind of begs the question of genre and how it relates to your band. What is Lambchop's relation to genre? Do you think the band seeks more to destroy it, or to ignore it?
KW: (Laughs) We just kind of go about our business. Unfortunately, I guess genre comes into play. People like yourself have to tell somebody what this music sounds like. In our case, I don't know, we just do what we do and it never seems to really fit any particular genre in a proper fashion. I don't think that's such a bad thing, it just makes for awkward conversation sometimes. If that means that we're sort of doing something unique...
CB: I was interviewing another musician recently and they were saying that they didn't think that 20 or 30 years ago people talked as much about genre as much as they do now, that somehow...
KW: (Laughs) Well, there were fewer genres. There was, like, rock and roll...
CB: ...but I think that, taking that idea a little bit further, if you go back to Lampchop 23 years ago, or whatever it's been, the music industry as a whole has changed a lot since then. It's been turned upside down. But from my perspective -- from the music-fan perspective -- it doesn't look like what you do, or the way you do it, have changed that much over that time.
KW: You know, it's probably true. We just plot alone in our own way. We just go about things in the way we always have. It's a fairly straightforward thing where we have remained independent of a lot of things. Obviously, we've worked with the same record label that we've worked with for over 20 years. We're just our own thing. We decide when to make a record, we pay for the record, we present it to the label: "Here you go!" We've sort of remained autonomous all these years. There are certain bands that function like that, but not many.
CB: I wanted to ask you specifically about the reissue of Is A Woman. What was it about that record that made it feel like it was worth revisiting?
KW: From the U.S. perspective, the big thing was it was never available on vinyl in this country. As a record in general, it was the record that followed up Nixon. Nixon was much more a record that was popular in the U.K. Is A Woman ended up being the one that was very popular across Europe. When you put that together, that solidified our world in Europe in general.
For me, it was a big record because started to create a sound that continues in some aspect to this day. Prior to that we were still sort of exploring how far we could go with the record-making, and how to make a record that was as technically and sonically as great as any big commercial release, and do it with a humble budget and facilities in Nashville. Is A Woman was really digging in and focusing on songs. It was also the introduction of the sound of piano in what we do. When Tony [Crow] joined the band, I pretty much designed the record around him, to feature the sound of piano, because it was something that had been rolling around my head for years. It was just that nobody in the band had played piano.
CB: As I was doing some research for this conversation, I read the Wikipedia article for Is A Woman. In the first sentence, it referenced "minimal instrumentation" but then included in the credits 19 musicians. I felt like that was Lambchop in a nutshell.
KW: It kind of was. It really sort of took, what at that point what had been a wonderful expression of a lot of people getting together and making a joyful noise together, and Is A Woman took the whole thing and made it coalesce into something that was pretty special.
With his easy smile, bushy beard and laid-back manner, Chris Robinson Brotherhood's Neal Casal looks like your friendly hippie next door. Humble as he may seem, Casal is easily one of the most impressive guitarists touring today. With an accomplished resume including stints in Ryan Adams' band The Cardinals, Phil Lesh & Friends and super group Hard Working Americans, as well as a dozen solo records to his name, Casal seems content to stand off to the side of the stage and either help his frontmen shine or completely outshine them, depending on how you see it. It's often the latter based on his mastery alone.
While he may not yet be a household name, Casal's skills have not gone unnoticed by those in the music world. In 2015, he was tapped to write and produce five hours of psychedelic instrumental jams to be played during the breaks at the historic "Fare Thee Well: Celebrating 50 Years of the Grateful Dead" concerts — an honor to say the least for the longtime fan.
As lead guitarist for CRB for the past six years, Casal is as vital a part of the Brotherhood as its namesake. If the band's fourth album, Any Way You Love, We Know How You Feel, and its companion EP, If You Lived Here, You'd Be Home By Now, are any indication, this cosmic musical bus is in high gear with no sign of slowing down any time soon.
The next installment of CRB's Betty's Blends live album series, Volume 3: Self-Rising, Southern Blends, is set for release on May 5, with tracks from the Southeastern leg of the band's 2015 tour, recorded and mixed live by legendary Grateful Dead engineer and archivist Betty Cantor-Jackson. It's also the first live album featuring the band's new drummer Tony Leone, who joins Robinson, Casal, keyboardist Adam MacDougall and bassist Jeff Hill.
CRB makes a stop in St. Louis on Sunday, April 2 to play the recently opened Delmar Hall for the first time. I chatted with Casal by phone in advance of the band's Spring Tour kickoff about CRBs journey, being schooled by Phil Lesh and his second career as a photographer, among other topics.
Amy: What has it been like to work with Betty Cantor-Jackson on the Betty's Blends series? How did that relationship come about?
Casal: That relationship came through Chris. He likes to honor the greats who have come before us and pay them the respect that they deserve, especially people like Betty, who are less known to music fans, but equally as important. Betty's recordings help us and she makes us sound great, of course, but the purpose is also to shed light on her career and work and the fact that, even though she's done all these legendary recordings since the '60s, she's still around now making beautiful recordings and still working at her craft that she's perfected over decades.
There's so much to be learned through Betty and we're all ears when she speaks. On a technical level, when we master the Betty's Blends records, I've often gone in and sat in on the mastering sessions, and I listen for her experience and try to pick up what I can from her because it's vital information and you can't get it through looking it up on the internet.
And through her, we've also gotten to know Kidd Candelario, who was a longtime Grateful Dead crew member and he makes all our cables for us; he makes our pedal boards too So we're working closely with a lot of these people that are still around and have so much knowledge to offer.
Amy: Any Way You Love, We Know How You Feel is I think the most complex and diverse CRB album in its styles and influences. How has the band evolved over the past six years with regards to songwriting?
Casal: We've evolved just by doing it; by sticking with it and never letting up for even a day. When the band started, there were some relationships and friendships there, but we were all very new to each other really. Chris and Adam had been in the Black Crowes together, but the rest of us had a long way to go to deepen our friendships, and it takes a few years to do that. So several hundred shows later, and a few records later, it took us a while to truly find our groove.
Chris and I have had a nice songwriting partnership right from day one, but even that had to evolve, and a few years in, we found ourselves in a deeper groove than when we started and the momentum has really helped us. Some bands peak early — their debut record will be their best and they're chasing that for the rest of their lives; but in the case of CRB, the opposite is coming true in that we're finding momentum as we go. Our first record was very good and a nice way to get started, but the best, amazingly, is yet to come with this bunch of old dogs.
Amy: I understand you recorded the album and EP in a unique home studio. That must have been quite a stimulating environment.
Casal: Yeah, there's a house high on a hill in Marin County that some friends of ours turned into a studio. It's a really amazing house that was built out of remnants of San Francisco bridges that were torn down. This guy had access to these materials and built with his own hands this house — literally built out of San Francisco — and it overlooks the Pacific Ocean. It's quite a scene. Some friends of mine turned the place into a recording studio and lots of bands are going there.
It's an amazingly creative atmosphere. The band loved it. Chris particularly found it very easy to write there. He can just take a walk around the grounds and stare into the woods with his notebook and come back an hour later with an incredible set of lyrics for a song we're working on. So it's great for him — great for all of us. We get to live there, live communally, make our meals there in the kitchen and sit down at the table together to eat, and right in the same space, we're recording. That really does inform the writing and the sound and the authenticity of the music.
Amy: I would imagine being self-produced allows for greater creative freedom as well.
Casal: It does if it's the right group of people. It can be a complete nightmare if it's the wrong combination of personalities. The lineup that we have now is really comprised of a bunch of producers, because we've all made our own records for so long. We all know what a good take sounds like. It's not a huge mystery. We've all been through many of those trials and we're all back at that simple place where it comes down to the question, "Is this good or bad?" And we can all reach a consensus on that very quickly. This group is able to self-produce.
Amy: Speaking of experience, you've played alongside some of the best musicians around, including Chris, Ryan Adams, Phil Lesh and the guys from Hard Working Americans, who are all very different from each other. What have you gained from that combined experience that's helped you be the player you are today?
Casal: As different as those groups and people are, there's so much commonality there as well. Whether it's Chris or Ryan or Todd or whomever I might be around, all of us in the music community, we're all after the same things. When it comes to being a songwriter, Ryan's and Todd's lyrical style is completely different, and Chris' too, but I can tell you what's the same about all those guys — you can find them every morning at their desk or a table or the lounge of the bus and they're grinding away at their notebooks, pressing their pens to the page as hard as they can digging for the next song. That's what I respond to. I'm just there to help them find that.
Amy: Growing up a Deadhead, it must have been a bit surreal to be asked to write and perform the break music for the "Fare Thee Well" anniversary shows. How did you even begin to tackle that daunting task?
Casal: Well, what was great about tackling that is that there wasn't much time to think about it. If I'd had more time to think about it — what's that Dylan line? "If I'd thought about it, I never would've done it; I guess I would've let it slide." That's completely true for me with the "Fare Thee Well" stuff. I got a call from my friend Justin [Kreutzmann] and I said yes, of course, and then I asked, "How much time have we got?" And he said, "None, really." So okay, we're making music for the visuals that will be on the screens on the side of the stage, so I asked, "Can I see the visuals?" And he said they weren't done yet; so I said, "We've got no time and I've got no visuals, what do you want me to do?" And Justin just said, "Go make some music that will make you feel good. Just imagine yourself being at the show and approach it from that perspective."
So I thought back to my days in the '80s at Grateful Dead and Jerry Garcia Band shows when I was a kid and imagined what kind of music I would want to hear if I was walking around before the band started and before the set break, and then I called some of my best musician friends that I thought would be right for it and we jumped into a studio very quickly and just improvised for two days. We just wrote everything on the spot and felt our way to something we thought people would enjoy and, much to our shock, people overwhelmingly liked it. The entire project and that music has had a much longer life than I ever thought it would. To be embraced by this Dead community the way we have — I can't even find words for the gratitude there.
Amy: You pulled it off remarkably well, considering.
Casal: We did our best to honor them with that music, but the idea was to do our own thing with it and improvise and do something weird and let the moment take you where it's going to take you. Let the music play you. We got a little of that magic with that music. Sometimes when you're torn out of your comfort zone, the best things happen.
So much of that, too, was the preparation we had by getting to play with Phil [Lesh] for the last few years. For Adam and I, that was a big deal because Phil taught us about improvisation and musical courage and being able to hang in there with a jam for more than a few minutes. Those guys were the masters — they'd hang in here for 15-20 minutes, and that takes incredible focus to do that convincingly. It really blew my mind when I played with him because I realized that a guy in his 70s could outlast any 30 year old. So we got our asses handed to us by Phil and it really was humbling, and I've been a dedicated student since I've been able to hang around that guy.
That connects to the CRB as well, because Chris takes that stuff very seriously. We are a band that plays two full sets every night. We don't mess around. It doesn't matter where we are — if we're in St. Louis at a small show or at a big festival, we're always trying to get there. We're a strange bunch that way. There's no day or show that we want to waste or phone in. It actually means something to us still. When Chris gets that smile going — it's not show business.
Amy: So, what's next?
Casal: We just made another record, actually, that will be released later this year with 10 new original songs. With that one, Any Way You Love, We Know How You Feel and If You Lived Here, You'd Be Home By Now, we'll have released 23 new songs in the past year and a half, which is pretty cool. Our rhythm section has changed a bit over the past year, but we're better than ever.
Amy: In addition to your music, you're also an accomplished photographer, and you have quite the Instagram following for your photos from the road. What do you love about the photography medium, especially as it relates to music?
Casal: Because it relates so well to music. I find myself in these situations that no other photographer can get to — no one can get the access I have; and I started thinking it would be a shame to waste that access and it would be very easy for me to have a guitar in one hand and a camera in the other. It broadens my artistic life and adds more to the overall picture.
I've always been a fan of photography. Jim Marshall is one of my heroes, and I got to meet him a couple times and I've met Henry Diltz. I just try to emulate those guys in a way. There's just something so inspiring when you see Jim Marshall's photos; the composition, that black and white look. It lights me up. So part of my artistic life is trying to make moments like that myself. And when you have people like Chris in front of you, you can't resist trying to make something of it.
It's also a nice thing to do with my days when I'm not playing, and the nicest things have happened from it. I never expected to have a book of photography, which I did. When I started taking pictures, I wasn't trying to land album covers or anything — I was just taking photos to do it. And then, like the Easy Tiger [Ryan Adams] album — the fact that one of my photos became a cover was incredible, and the fact that they've appeared in magazines and books and on records — wow, what a nice thing to add to my life.
Chris Robinson Brotherhood will play Delmar Hall on Sunday, April 2.