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Neal Casal – “I wish the world was as gentle as he was..”

August 27, 2019 Leave a comment

My doubts had doubts. I didn’t know what I was doing. All I know is that there was, finally, something about this batch of songs that kept me awake at night, thinking that things were possible. It was 1998.

I was working with George Graham at WVIA. George had a suggestion.

“I think we should ask Neal….I hear him on these..”

Neal Casal.

George has worked with Neal on a previous session. He thought our styles would mesh.

I didn’t know what to say….I think I stammered something like….”um…er….well….I mean….do you think he would do it, because I doubt he’ll…you know….?”

I had Neal’s records. We played a show together when he passed through the area. I was a huge fan. Just listening to “Fade Away Diamond Time” and “Rain Wind and Speed” made me a better songwriter…because I discreetly stole from both of them. He was so understated, so quietly inventive. He did everything well. Gorgeous singer, writer of great melodies (“Bird in Hand” still makes me cry), wonderful lyricist. As a guitarist he served the song better than anybody I’d ever heard. He had a pitch-perfect ear. And he was as gentle as the sunrise.

George said “let’s ask him”, and he did and Neal not only said yes, he suggested bringing his friend John Ginty with him. John had played keys on all of Neal’s records up to that point. And so there it was. It wasn’t just that I was intimidated, It was that I nearly shit myself. That’s the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.

casal16

Neal during the “Song About a Train” sessions

I had no idea how to make a record. None. It was suggested that Neal and John were so good that we’d only need a day to rehearse the songs….they’d come up on a Friday night, and we could record on Saturday and Sunday. My girls weren’t born yet, so Neal got Kiera’s future room….and John got Alyssa’s. We played for a few hours and I spent the entire time grinning like an idiot. If anybody needed to rehearse it was me. By the end of the night Neal and John knew the songs better than I did.

They were fully engaged. We tweaked and cut and added and worked on arrangements. What struck me was how into this Neal was. He wasn’t just connecting the dots I had laid out. He was saying “let’s try this…..let’s try that…what do you think about this?…” He was softly pre-producing the record, ultimately…something I didn’t realize at the time because I had no idea what a producer was or what one did. And he was forcing me to believe in myself, because it was clear he believed in the songs. If they were good enough for him….well that was good enough for me.

So I didn’t shit myself, although I never got over feeling just a wee bit intimidated. This was the kind of talent I was unfamiliar with. Right out of the box, you get to work with Neal Casal? I didn’t know what normal was, but I knew this wasn’t it. But I savored every last drop.

Neal woke up the next morning, and being the perfect gentleman, thanked my wife for her hospitality. He remarked how he slept hard to the sound of the river that rolled along across the street, and off to the studio we went to make “Song About a Train“. In two sessions it was done. I played his Martin acoustic on just about every track. He was right there the entire time….adding harmony, gorgeous fills on the guitar, impeccable slide playing…..and taking some co-lead vocals. And always, without fail, encouraging me. Pushing me forward. When the energy flagged, he brought it back. When I started to see frogs on the wall trying to cut the final track, it was Neal who brought me outside for some air and talked me off the ledge. It’s his record as much as it’s mine.

I think I’ve made better records since, but I never made one that meant more. It convinced me that I could do this. And I can honestly say that if I hadn’t made this one….with Neal and John, things would have turned out a lot differently for me. And not better.

I woke up this morning to the news that Neal is gone. And the world suddenly seemed a little meaner. Neal was like the cool breeze you felt on a warm day. A man in constant motion, brimming with ideas. The music oozed from him the way mortals sweat out booze the morning after. He had become the consummate sideman (most notably with Ryan Adams and Chris Robinson), but had front-man talent and charisma. But as always, Neal followed the music. Wherever it took him. Stage right or standing on the center X. He deserved everything that he got. And he deserved so much more. I’m not sure he ever realized that last bit.

We stayed in touch the way most folks do these days. Email first….then social media. I grabbed every record he made as soon as he made it, and never stopped being a fan first, completely inspired by his gifts. I probably last heard from him a year ago. As always, he seemed to be in a good place, open to anyone and everything that might cross his path.  Forever the restless wanderer.

He always treated me like an equal, even though I wasn’t.

I just wish he was still here.

I wish the world was as gentle as he was.

In a bit..

–tf

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Confessions of a Tragically Hip virgin…

August 21, 2019 3 comments

Comedian Martin Mull once said that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture”.

It’s pretty arrogant of me to lecture you on what makes my brain dance, trying to convince you that it should make your brain dance too. We all have our tastes, our blind-spots, our secret crushes, and that one band that we drag around to anybody who’ll listen and say “you gotta hear these guys…”

We like what we like, hate what we hate, and can’t live without what we can’t live without. And if we’re serious about music, our ears are always open. But still….

But still, time spent reading about music takes away from the time you should be listening to it….so I won’t blather on too long here. But a few things have been building up. And I’m feeling a bit word hungry today.

ltr-th-1024x576I’ve just recently discovered The Tragically Hip. As a dumb American, this doesn’t make me unique. How a nation that championed bands during the 80s/90s/2000s that were not worthy to shine Gord Downie’s black stage boots could largely overlook a group this exciting is beyond me. But it happened. I was there. I should know.

The Hip tore up Saturday Night Live one night, and the next night played to 40 drunks in a Saint Louis bar. That’s on us red white and blue-ers.. We missed the train……and longtime Hip fans must be tired of morons like me jumping on the bandwagon after the balloon has landed.

It was the Netflix doc that introduced me. I read a post about it from a Facebook friend…saying that it moved him to tears. So I pulled it up…..grabbed a lager…and everything changed.

I’d never heard these songs before. Ever. And I kept inching the volume up….until my sleeping kids started yelling downstairs for me to turn it down. Apparently “Courage” turned up to 11 was bothering them at 1am. Who knew? This would need to be addressed….but later….

The brotherhood of the band. The tragedy of Gord’s diagnosis. The friendship. The love. The pre-show kisses. The way all of this affected an entire nation. When I get excited watching something, I stand and pace. I’ve only done this during sporting events, and Long Time Running.

But still…..the fucking songs. It was relentless….snippets mostly from the doc….it wasn’t until later that I heard the original versions (and saw the final Kingston show in its entirety). I was a Hip virgin….and it was like lying under Niagara Falls with my legs spread.

Bobcaygeon. Blow at High Dough. Wheat Kings. Fifty-Mission Cap. Poets. Grace, Too. Fireworks. Little Bones. Ahead By a Century.

(To long-time Hip fans, the above list is so blatantly obvious it doesn’t conjure up words at all, just a sound. “Duh”. But be cautioned. It’s easy to forget that there was a time when you too heard these songs for the first time. They weren’t always there. It just seems that way. I’d felt this feeling only once before. The first time I heard The Who.)

I’d never heard songs this good, coming at me so fast. I was dizzy. As soon as it was over, I watched it again. Cue the kids yelling all over again. More understandable this time, as it was inching past 3am now. But still….

I got more the second time. The lines started to jump out…

“Could have been the Willie Nelson / could have been the wine”

“You said you didn’t give a fuck about hockey / and I never saw someone say that before”

“No dress rehearsal / this is our life”

Who was this dying madman?

I was jealous of Canadians. We don’t have a band like this. A band that meant this much to so many. A band that seemingly lifted a nation. Fucking Justin Trudeau was singing along from the balcony in his Hip t-shirt, flexing his pecs. Can you imagine something like this happening in America? You cannot. Something like a third of the nation was singing along to “Ahead By a Century”. What could we offer to compare?

I shudder to think of what we’d come up with in 2019.

It wasn’t annoying nationalism either. The flag waving might make the uninitiated think otherwise, with the potential to be as misconstrued in Canada as “Born in the USA” was here, but Downie was giving a voice to folks long ignored. And as his remarks  to Trudeau at the end of the Kingston show proved, he wasn’t afraid to hold feet to the fire.

He had balls, in other words.

Downie was a national treasure. A combination of Dylan and Springsteen and Willie Nelson and Stevie Wonder and Michael Stipe and the ghost of Elvis, all rolled up into various lamé suits. Imagine all of the living dying on the same day…..along with Presley’s grave being defaced by vandals during the funerals…and you might be somewhere in the neighborhood of what I was seeing. The intensity of it all was almost frightening. No hockey arena in Canada could satisfy demand. With eloquence an American hasn’t heard from a politician since pre-2016, Trudeau spoke of the need for a “cathartic cry”. I didn’t get it then. I get it now.

But that band.

Fay and Sinclair always locked in, as if sharing the same watch. Langlois always there….sometimes laying back, sometimes stepping forward…..but always paving the way for Baker to take flight. And in front of it all was Downie, one for the ages. A gyrating dynamo with the soul of a street poet, waving the white handkerchief as if constantly surrendering, his dance moves reminding me of a man filled with tequila trying to shoo away bugs, trying to make eye contact with every single person in the arena….and probably coming damn close. He’d fill the songs out with mumbling raps….hilarious, mind-bending, nonsensical, brilliant. His was a brain that had no off switch, even cancer could not change that. He gave us his all. Every. Single. Time.

And I missed it all while it was happening. And that makes me feel like an idiot.

But it’s a late day for regrets. So I take what I can get.

For months I’ve listened to little else but this band. “Road Apples” is a particular favorite. I consider “Bobcaygeon” one of the the greatest song of the 90s. I once sat on my front porch and drank a 6 pack of PBRs listening to nothing but “Wheat Kings” on repeat. I do not dabble in anything. When I go, I go hard.

I’m so grateful to have found this band. To all my friends I have relentlessly badgered about needing to find them too, I apologize and promise not to do it again.

Until the next time I see you and say “you gotta hear these guys….”

To all those who have known all along…..I wish I was with you for the ride.

In a bit..

–tf

 

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