Thursday, July 19, 2007

Ryan Adams + Neal Casal = Better Ryan Adams

This entry started out as a post on a message board that people actually read. However, as I composed my response, I realized that I wanted to address a topic that I held much closer to my heart than a shoot-from-the-hip response to a message board could convey. That message board's loss becomes your gain dear reader...

I spent some time on the road with Neal Casel years ago when he was playing with Shannon McNally. In short, my experience identifies him as a super individual and top notch musician; a player always at his best when he was most tired FWIW (which is a trait that I, though experience, associate with most incredible musical talents). It makes me very happy to see the role he's playing on stage and on record with Ryan Adams. Seems like Mr. Adams is pulling it all together on Easy Tiger, good for him. Looks like I'm gonna need to buy that one too.

Neal's quote re: playing on the record: "i mean really, after all these fuckin' years, to be on a top 10 record, it's like some insane cosmic joke. whatever, my mom is stoked, she told all the ladies at the bingo hall..." That kinda sums it all up, in the most perfect way possible. When we worked together, Neal always struck me a someone who could walk a seemingly impossible line of balance. Equally the disarming, self-effacing charmer that could utter the aforementioned quote with complete believability, Neal also, as I grew to know him well, became the rock star ideal that any of us in music, whether musician, fan, employee or groupie, come to idealize, maybe even idolize. He was the ring leader of a trio of leaders, equal parts friend, talent, counselor, teacher, student, trouble-maker & mediator. That time becomes even more amazing as I look back, because (bassist) Jeff Hill and (drummer) Dan Fadel also moved smoothly and authoritatively between those roles. As I became more experienced as a tour manager, I came to understand that such a band was an anomaly at best, and, in truth, a miracle. Surrounded by those guys and looking out for their needs evolved into much less of a job and much more of an honor. Each man taught me so much, shaped me more than they may ever know, and left me spoiled in a way that even the best of my subsequent positions struggles to match.

A favorite story from the road: When we toured with Shannon, we travelled with a record player on the bus, listening to the perfect analog captures of some amazing artists: Stevie, The Band, The Stones, ZZ Top, The Meters. Shannon's band, Neal among them, displayed the deepest reverence for real, well-crafted, quality music that I've ever come across. That attitude continues to exist as one I respect and learn from to this day. I, myself, went back far enough with The Band, at least nearly as far back as someone who just started to understand the nuances of 6 years of age around Thanksgiving '76 and The Last Waltz could go. Robbie left in '76, Richard died in '81, but I still saw Rick, Garth & Levon from the front row at SPAC in '93 (a story for another entry). I still ran listening to the great live version of "Get Up, Jake" from Rock of Ages in college.

I knew them well, or so I thought, until I spent time with Neal and Jeff Hill and Dan Fadel. Those records they played, and more importantly, the respect and love that they approached those records with, opened my ears and eyes to something I didn't realize existed. Shannon used to end many of her shows with a dedication to Levon Helm, singing "When I Paint My Masterpiece" in his honor, because at the time, Levon's throat cancer prevented him from singing anything. Those moments, that respect, that willingness to listen and learn and study to this day impress me about Shannon and her band. They took me to see the Last Waltz on the big screen in LA. They shaped my passing knowledge of Tom Waits into my current passion. They schooled me with ZZ Top's Tres Hombres, years before the talented Charlie Hunter ever allowed Billy Gibbons' raunch to creep into his bag of tricks. I learned about Jamerson and Motown's Funk Brothers and the legacy of Papa Funk and the Meters. They gave me Graham Parsons. (Check this low quality video of Neal & Ryan covering Hickory Wind.)

Even as I absorbed this flood of knowledge and appreciation, my own foundations grew stronger. I already loved Garcia's tone, but Neal taught me about the role played by Jerry's Gibson SG in shaping it. I knew of musicians' devotion to vintage instruments, but Jeff Hill handed me the 1st pre CBS Fender bass I ever touched. I learned enough about vintage drums from Dan Fadel to fight production managers over the preposterous statement that "Our backline DWs sound as good as his '67 Ludwigs". Were it not for Dan, I'd never know about the sweet sounds of Rogers kits, or what the hell a "Gretsch Round Badge" was. Finally, and its a fact that's definitely less pertinent to my (very few) readers, but they taught me the difference between thrift store fare, and vintage clothing. That might not strike you as important at all, until you realize that so many of my (and your) favorite bands, from local heros Sam Champion, to regional darlings The Slip and Apollo Sunshine, to national powerhouses such as the White Stripes / Rancantours, Wilco, Bright Eyes & Broken Social Scene draw their wardrobes from this same pool. To me, that fact alone simply illustrates a homage to the brilliance that preceded them. For all of those musicians working in the ream of real music, attempting to survive on their devotion to that art, that subtle difference plays a significant role in the vibe they want to create.

You can call it respect for the past, or maybe more optimistically, hope for the future. My point remains: without the time I spent with Jeff, Dan and Neal, I don't know where I would have found the passion, respect, knowledge, understanding and devotion I now hold for the incredible art, vision, expression and vibe that they helped introduce to me. For that fact alone, and for the friendships that continue to blossom whenever I get lucky enough to again cross paths with those 3, I remain eternally grateful. BTW, if such knowledge, respect and willingness to learn sounds like something that appeals to you, do yourself a favor and check out their band. If we lived in a different time (and its sad, at least musically, that we don't), you might dream about spending a Thanksgiving with them as they presented their own version of the Last Waltz, not as a final bow, but as a celebration of all that this writer, and I know many of you, love.

Its people like this that help me stay gold.