On the Scene: There’s a Reward: A Celebration of the Life & Music of Neal Casal to Benefit Musicares at the Capitol Theatre

“One of my best memories was when I hit my one and only home run at Petersen Field that spring day…. Dad was in the stands watching me and he was so proud of me, I don’t think I’ve ever felt so good in my entire life. I hit that ball and watched it slowly go over… and wished the moment could have lasted for eternity.” 

—Neal Casal

Those words were printed on the back of a baseball card, made specifically in his honor and handed out to guests as they entered through the doorways of the historic Capitol Theater in Port Chester, NY on September 25, as friends, family, and fans gathered together to celebrate the life and music of guitarist, singer, and songwriter Neal Casal, who tragically took his own life on August 26. 

The evening began at 6:45 p.m. with a slideshow of photos put together by photographer/director and Casal’s close friend, Justin Kruetzmann. Over the loudspeakers played the Rolling Stones classic Exile on Main Street, while photos Casal (also a skilled photographer) had taken throughout the years were projected on a large screen that hung above three separate drum kits. Photos of Ryan Adams, Thurston Moore, The Jayhawks, as well as California scenescapes and intimate portraits of friends scrolled by one by one, as a single chair, draped with a corduroy blazer, sat stage left alongside Casal’s guitar and a surfboard, presumably Casal’s, who was also an avid surfer. Many red roses were also draped along the stage with care. 

As the slideshow came to a close, just before the main event was set to kick off at 8 p.m., the following passage flashed onscreen:

“Have an epic party for me and play my favorite records, and remember all of the good times we had, the music, images, and waves we caught. That’s all.

Play Exile on Main Street from beginning to end, and especially play ‘Moonlight Mile.’

It’s my song, always has been, it’s me.

I used to lay with my headphones on and listen to that song over and over again and it would make me cry and inspire me to live and create.

It’s beautiful and elegant and tough and sad and hopeful all at once. Everything I ever wanted to be.”

These were the last words and thoughts of Neal Casal, and per his request, over the next five hours, an epic party was indeed had. 

Throughout the evening, emcee Gary Waldman, Casal’s longtime manager, introduced guests one after the other, each telling stories and sharing memories, as photographs of Casal flashed onscreen, some of which were taken from his earliest days as a performer—including his days as a hair-metal loving youth in New Jersey, from which a large contingency of old friends and family members were present in the audience. Singer Dori Freeman, shaman Robbi Robb, and singer-songwriter-pianist Leslie Mendelson opened the evening’s musical proceedings, respectively, with moving hymns and some of Casal’s own songs. Mendelson’s rendition of Casal’s “Feel No Pain” was exceptionally moving. Also making a special guest appearance was Steve Earle, who performed solo on an acoustic guitar a version of Casal’s “Highway Butterfly,” which he wrote in 1997 after the passing of Townes Van Zandt. 

Prior to the close of the first set, Peter Shapiro—promoter, Lockn’ festival co-founder, and owner of the Capitol Theatre came onstage to share memories of Casal’s most recent group, Circles Around the Sun, and then announced to much applause that a stage is to be named in Casal’s honor indefinitely at future Lockn’ festivals.

After a short break, Casal’s band Circles Around the Sun took to the stage for a jam-heavy, 30 minute set that was dynamic and sharp. They were joined by guitarist Eric Krasno (Krasno will apparently be taking over guitar duties in CATS, as it has been understood that one of Casal’s last wishes was for CATS to continue as a group), as well as drummer Joe Russo, who just recorded and EP with the group that was released on October 18. 

The evening’s finale came in the form of Chris Robinson taking the stage along with members of his group, the Chris Robinson Brotherhood—the band in which Casal wrote and performed with for much of the last decade. Together, the band launched into Dylan’s gut-wrenching “Forever Young,” at which point the gravity of the evening began to hit home. 

But, the sadness and emptiness felt from Casal’s loss was, at least for a few hours, replaced with harmony and joy.