Neal Casal comes back home
BY JONATHAN PERRY
Neal Casal never wanted to be Lucinda Williams’s guitar player. But as he says over falafel at the Middle East, "When one of the great songwriters asks you to come and play, you say yes. It’s as simple as that."
Casal’s in town with Beachwood Sparks, with whom he’s signed on as guitarist/keyboardist for an autumn tour that includes two dates opening for Black Crowes this week at the Orpheum (on October 30 and 31). But earlier this year, the drummer in his own band, Don Heffington, joined the outfit Williams was putting together to tour behind her latest album. She asked Heffington whether he knew any rhythm-guitar players. He suggested Casal, a California-based singer/songwriter with a slew of well-regarded albums to his credit but no American record deal. Williams invited Casal to hop on board for some live dates, including a big showcase at the South by Southwest music festival in March. So was Williams the perfectionist she’s always made out to be?
" ‘Perfectionist’ can be taken a lot of different ways, but yeah, she is," he admits. "It’s not without merit, though. She knows what she’s looking for and she’ll stop at nothing to get it right. And I really respect her for that. She compromises for no one. You don’t always make friends that way, but I think in the end that she’s right. When you listen to her records, there’s the proof."
Never mind an impressive résumé of session credits (Sheryl Crow; Smashing Pumpkins’ James Iha) — to a devoted group of fans and musical admirers, Casal has made a lot of fine music in his own right, starting with 1995’s Fade Away Diamond Time (Zoo) and leading up to his new Anytime Tomorrow. The latter disc, released this month on his own Morebarn imprint, was first issued overseas last year on Germany’s Glitterhouse label — which says something about where his music has so far found its most appreciative audience. In fact, the new album represents his first stateside release since his Zoo debut, which showcased a promising young artist before the label went kaput. Casal’s future very nearly went with it. "I found acceptance in Europe so that’s where I went." But now, armed with a disc he believes to be the strongest of his career, he says it’s time to come back.
Anytime Tomorrow is a 50-minute cosmic California dream populated by the young ghosts of Jackson Browne, David Crosby, and the Glenn Frey–led Eagles and replete with ’70s production values as warm, wide, and spacious as Laurel Canyon. The spangled Stonesy romp of "Willow Jane" and the sunbeam-spiked "Oceanview" are highlights, but none of the disc’s dozen tracks would sound out of place nestled alongside Poco or Heart like a Wheel–era Linda Ronstadt on one of those AM Gold compilations. Indeed, Anytime Tomorrow bassist Bob Glaub has played with both Browne and Ronstadt.
Out of time, space, and context? Casal pays no mind. Along with his new tour mates, he’s part of a growing SoCal scene that is starting to get noticed. "I think the comparisons are flattering as long as it’s just a starting point for people. Those comparisons can be limiting. People think, ‘Oh well, they’re just a Buffalo Springfield knockoff, or a Gram Parsons knockoff’ — that’s the name that always comes up. I love Gram Parsons as much as anyone, but to be compared with him sends up a red flag immediately. On the other hand, if somebody feels that my songwriting rivals early Jackson Browne, I can only take that as a tremendous compliment. And yes, those bands meant a lot to me, and yes, they were inspiring."
But Casal stops short of claiming membership in any "movement." His albums, he insists, are merely an extension of a lifetime of listening. He fell in love with the pedal steel and rhythm guitar from the moment he first heard the Stones’ Exile on Main Street, the album given to him by his brother for his 13th birthday. His song "Willow Jane," he confesses, is an obvious homage. "Keith Richards was the reason I started playing guitar. So if there’s a nod to Keith in the riff to ‘Willow Jane,’ I’ll certainly, proudly, own up to that."
Casal began playing pedal steel guitar well before he ever heard of alterna-country mainstays like the Jayhawks or Uncle Tupelo. "I really wasn’t plugged into the scene that was happening in the early ’90s, but I did feel a certain kinship when I heard those bands. But I don’t make music as a reaction to anything happening in the musical scene." Anytime Tomorrow, he says, reflects how his life felt at the time: "I looked around and realized that all my friends were still with me and that we had all grown together. I was standing on stronger ground than I was a few years before, and that’s good. That means you’re getting somewhere."
Issue Date: October 25 - November 1, 2001