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“DD Review: Circles around the Sun – Live at the Charleston Pour House 11/12/21.”

Score: 8/10

Don’t do online research on anything. That’s my advice to you. Can you have a cookout? Do you have a grill? Do you have a badminton net, He**, a frisbee? The weather’s getting nicer. Simplify. Breathe. Gyrate. And listen to this fu**ing album because it’s the best jam rock album since Umphrey’s McGee – Live at the Murat (2007). 

Now, if you’ll excuse the calamitous tone of my first paragraph there, I’d now like to explicate all of the surrounding events that have led to this band’s formation and to the orchestration of this 2021 show and live LP. According to ALLMUSIC, in or around 2015, Dustin Kreutzmann, son of former Grateful Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann, approached a guitarist named Neal Casal, about a project he had in mind. Casal was a Jersey boy who’d been in bands all around the country like Ryan Adams and the Cardinals, but, presumably, like many of us, had an affinity for the Grateful Dead. The impetus of Kreutzmann’s request of Casal’s had to do with a need for some tunes, simply put, and in particular, some background music to accompany Kreutzmann’s short films. Kreutzmann’s brief films (no word on whether they’re on Tik Tok yet) were borne within the purpose of entertaining crowds during The Dead set breaks during the tours contemporary with the two men’s meeting. 

Casal acquiesced, according to ALLMUSIC, forming a band of keyboardist Adam McDougall (Chris Robinsons Brotherhood/Phil Lesh & Friends), bassist Dan Horne and drummer Mark Levy. Per report, the operation of the interlude jams was so well-received (hardly surprising, given the lineup of musicians) that Rhino saw fit to release two albums of the band’s and all in all, they’ve been together ever since, to this day, touring, writing and recording, with an overt nod to the Grateful Dead in parts (the song “Scarlotta’s Magnolias” borrows implicitly from the Dead’s “Scarlet Begonias” and almost mimics the riff to the other Dead tune “China Cat Sunflower”). And everybody lived happily ever after. 

Well, Neal Casal killed himself in his home state of New Jersey, on August 26, 2021, three months before the performance of this live album, eerily enough. The event followed the band’s trip to Southern California to record, earlier that summer. As far as I can gather, the band hadn’t been playing any shows during that exact stretch of time. 

As much as I’ve looked, too, I can’t seem to find a personnel page for Live at the Pour House, and another disconcerting development is that, now, according to ALLMUSIC, Dan Horne is the only original member still in Circles around the Sun, the other three being some dudes named Brad Corrigan, Chadwick Stokes and Pete Francis. Without question, my online research, along being completely fruitless toward discerning who the He** is making this music I’m listening to, has painted a dark tinge on my entire impression of this album, which, for your listening pleasure, does emulate the dissonant Dead tunes like “The Other One” and “Shakedown Street”; but is all instrumental, and borrows as well from the stately funk-rock of Herbie Hancock and the instrumentation eccentricity of Galactic. 

So the whole thing is pretty touch and go. I don’t think there’s any denying that. This isn’t a band I’d go up to after the show and be like “How do you get the bass player off the porch… pay for the pizza” [1]. At this point, I think it would be an understatement and a foregone conclusion to say their future is up in the air, and that no eternal stream of gratifying music should be assumed on the verge of transpiring.

But da**, this album is great, which of course makes all the surrounding events even sadder. The first thing that struck me was the production. Right away on “One for Chuck,” the bass sound makes itself prominent as an incredibly clear, pleasing aural conduit to the band’s swaggering brand of funk rock. In general, the entire mix conjeals very well, with the drums (again, I apologize but I can’t ascertain band members) just strong enough, the snare hits forceful but not distracting or cutesy.

As should be expected, given that this is undeniably a gang of professional musicians, the band does a great job of maximizing their instrumentation with virtuosity and with manipulation texture, within said instruments. “One for Chuck” finds repeated, incessant wah-wah pedal inviting you into different sonic corridors, while the endless “Saturday’s Children/Tacoma Narrows” makes mind-blowing physical use of a Moog synth to the point where I actually thought it was a clarinet, or some woodwind. 

Still, this stuff is rested on a certain proclivity for songwriting, even if it’s songwriting in that vague, unfinished way that “jam” usually is (you wouldn’t have it any other way, trust me). For instance, “Pete Jive” is fastened on a very creative chord progression that itself sort of acts as a riff, a testament to the complexity from which no great jam band is wise to shy away. A strange, faint and pleasant sound that resembles a trumpet or flugal horn crashes the party on the gentle, beautiful “Immovable Object,” by which time, honestly, your hips will be ready for a break. Anyway, if anybody ever tells you New Jersey and Southern California are cool, punch them really hard in the nards. 

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[1] Thanks to The Ziggens’ Live / Tickets Still Available for that one.

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