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Jeff Moehlis: Chris Robinson Brotherhood’s Neal Casal Opens Up about Santa Barbara, Grateful Dead

When the Chris Robinson Brotherhood first played Santa Barbara’s SOhO Restaurant & Music Club in 2011, The Black Crowes had just gone on hiatus and the new band hadn’t yet released an album. But already there was magic in the air.

Fast-forwarding to the present, the Chris Robinson Brotherhood has three acclaimed albums out, and, on July 3, they’ll be playing at the Santa Barbara Bowl, sharing the bill with the Grateful Dead torchbearers Bob Weir & RatDog.

Chris Robinson Brotherhood lead guitarist Neal Casal talked to Noozhawk about the special place that Santa Barbara holds for the band, plus his days as a Deadhead. Click here for the full interview.

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Jeff Moehlis: I saw you guys in 2011 when you did your Santa Barbara residency. Did you you enjoy those visits to Santa Barbara, and how has the band evolved since that time?

Neal Casal: That Santa Barbara residency, and the larger California residency that we were doing there in the spring of 2011, was the very beginnings of the band. So we’ve come a long, long way since then. We sound a lot different, the whole experience of seeing our shows feels a lot different. So yeah, there’s been a lot of evolution since then. That was the point in our evolution where we were figuring out how to be a band in front of people. Growing up in public. Because those were our very first shows, and we had rehearsed very little for those shows. We just kind of rehearsed on the road.

Honestly, those Santa Barbara shows were pivotal in our becoming a band, pivotal in our decision to continue as a band, to continue past the two months of California shows that we had initially booked. I think it was the second week at SOhO when everything all fell together, and we felt the crowd react and connect to what we were doing, and the room exploded and we all looked at each other and collectively thought, “Right, this is gonna work.” It was upward from there. So those Santa Barbara shows were really, really important to us.

Santa Barbara and San Diego were where we actually started to gather our first strong followings. It didn’t happen in L.A. It took a while in San Francisco. But Santa Barbara is where we first felt the love, you know? And by the end of that run, we packed SOhO every time we came back. That’s where we really gained our confidence and felt like we could make a run at this. Santa Barbara is definitely a very central part of our history.

I’m really psyched to play the Santa Barbara Bowl. I’ve always wanted to play there since I first went there. I saw the greatest show of my life at the Santa Barbara Bowl, so I’ve always wanted to step on that stage.

JM: What show was that?

NC: It was Neil Young, I think it was September of 2000. It’s the best show I’ve ever seen in my life. He was levitating. It was like he was possessed. It was unbelievable. I’ve never seen anything like it. It was watching a true master at work. I had never been to the Bowl before, and that place just enchanted me. A September night under the stars, a beautiful place, and Neil Young came out and just blew our minds. I’ve always thought, man, I’d love to play there. I live in Ventura now, so that coastline has become my home over the past four or five years. It’ll be good to play the home turf.

JM: So you’re sharing the bill with Bob Weir & RatDog. I definitely got a bit of a Grateful Dead vibe from what you guys were doing at SOhO. Did you ever get to see the Grateful Dead perform live?

NC: I did, many times. I saw the Dead a lot, and I saw the Jerry Garcia Band, too. So I have some direct experience in this connection. I’ve been a long-time Deadhead, and proud to say it. That part of all of this feels ... It’s a surprise to actually get to be around people like Bob Weir, and I played with Phil Lesh, too, to be around these people is just the last thing I ever would’ve imagined happening, because they’re such icons. But at the same time it’s not that foreign to me, because the music is very familiar, and a really big part of my own playing. So it feels very organic and natural to be hanging out with those guys.

JM: Are you willing to go on record on what was your favorite Dead show that you saw?

NC: I’ll tell you my favorite Grateful Dead moment. It’s when they played the song called "Days Between, which was one of their newer songs. You know, it wasn’t one of their classics. It was a newer song that at the time had never made it onto a record. I’d seen a rut of not-the-best Dead shows, shall we say, and there was a moment, I think this was in ’93 or something, getting toward the end of their career, where I was watching them, I think it was at the Nassau (N.Y.) Coliseum, somewhere on the East Coast, and they were just kind of going through the motions of a normal show.

And then the dropped into the song, “Days Between,” which if you know it at all, you know the lyrics and you know the vibe of the tune, it was just one of those really heavy, really profound moments in music that I’ve ever witnessed. When (Jerry) Garcia started singing that song, it literally felt like the world stopped turning and everything froze, and everyone in the place ... It was just one of those collective moments where people just froze and felt the weight of those words, and felt the weight of where this guy was at in his life, and where the band was at.

It wasn’t one of the more joyous and upbeat moments, it was a much more poignant, melancholic moment. They had that in them. It was really one of the heaviest live music moments that I’ve ever seen, and I’ve never forgotten it.

Click here for the full interview with Neal Casal.

— Jeff Moehlis is a Noozhawk contributing writer and a professor of mechanical engineering at UC Santa Barbara. Upcoming show recommendations, advice from musicians, interviews and more are available on his web site, The opinions expressed are his own.

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