Most bands don’t survive after an instrumental member commits suicide. Nirvana, Soundgarden and Joy Division are examples of iconic groups that ceased to exist after a significant bandmate died.
Aside from a gaping creative void, there is the trauma of dealing with the loss of a bandmate, often times one who died without saying goodbye.
One exception is guitarist Neal Casal, who formed the instrumental band Circles Around the Sun. The sole purpose of assembling the quartet was to create intermission music for “Fare Thee Well, a series of reunion concerts played by the surviving members of the Grateful Dead in 2015.
But four years after the band was born Casal killed himself. The members of Circles were surprised that Casal had a message for his bandmates in his will.
“He added a paragraph in his last will and testament for our band,” drummer Mark Levy said while calling from Tuscon. “It was an incredible and heartbreaking document. After he tied up all of the loose ends regarding his guitars he told us that he’s so proud of the album we had just finished (2020’s eponymous release). He wrote, “Please release it and do everything to make it sound as good as possible and to have Jim Scott mix it.’ How can you turn that request down?”
Scott, a Grammy Award winning producer-mixer-engineer, who worked with Santana, Tom Petty and the Foo Fighters, complied. Casal completed all of his guitar parts the week before he died. “The end of his letter hit us hard,” Levy said. “He wrote, ‘Go on with your lives and play music and take care of each other.’ ”
Circles Around the Sun survived the darkest cloud a band can experience.
“I knew the moment I learned about Neal’s passing that it was going to be really hard to continue,” Levy said. “It was one of the worst things that happened in my life. But somehow we made it through all of that and we’re still standing.”
Levy and his bandmates, keyboardist Aaron MacDougall, bassist Dan Horne and guitarist John Lee Shannon, aren’t just still standing. Circles Around the Sun, which will perform Wednesday at the Lucky You Lounge, is flourishing. “It’s going well,” Levy said. “It wasn’t easy with the pandemic and everything but we’re fine.”
There’s no band quite like Circles Around the Sun since there are few instrumental acts that combine jazz, funk and psychedelia.
“We’re in an unusual spot but that’s fine with us,” Levy said. “We just go out there and play.”
Circles Around the Sun loves to improvise. “That’s just natural for us,” Levy said. “When we play, we love to move in different directions. We’re just scraping by but we’re doing what we’re passionate about. It takes a lot of effort but that’s fine with us.”
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