Neal Casal was relentless as a session and live guitarist, amassing a career too diverse to list in one sitting but certainly highlighted by tenures with Ryan Adams & The Cardinals, the Chris Robinson Brotherhood, the Hard Working Americans, and Circles Around The Sun. He was a songwriter and performer in his own right, a producer, a collaborator, a photographer, and his sudden passing in August of 2019 came as an unmitigated shock to his peers and fans alike. In his honor, the Neal Casal Foundation was formed to provide music education in New Jersey and New York through donations and lessons while also supporting mental health organizations geared towards musicians.
Highway Butterfly is a staggering tribute to an artist whose vast influence can be felt across 41 tracks featuring performances by Aaron Lee Tasjan, Jaime Wyatt, Marcus King, Billy Strings, Susan Tedeschi & Derek Trucks, Shooter Jennings, Warren Haynes, Steve Earle, The Allman Betts Band, and many, many more. Produced by Dave Schools (Widespread Panic) and Jim Scott (Rolling Stones, Tom Petty), proceeds from the sale of the massive box set will go directly to the foundation.
Zephaniah OHora’s Listening to the Music was Neal Casal’s final role as producer. The two met through mutual friends, and in our last conversation, OHora spoke of how in awe of and impressed he was by the genuineness and care Casal showed his music. Zephaniah named his firstborn after Neal and continues the homage on Highway Butterfly with a deftly country-fried version of “Best To Bonnie” that’s accentuated by John Shannon’s guitar and harmonies from Shawn Barton and Tonya Lamm of the band Hazeldine. From his home in Brooklyn, NY, OHora shares details about his selection on the tribute (and which song he originally wanted), what he’s been working on during the pandemic, and what he’ll remember most about his time working with Neal Casal.
Highway Butterfly: The Songs of Neal Casal is available now!
AI- Tell me how the world is for you right now! At the time of our last conversation, summer of 2020, New York was still pretty much on lockdown. Have you been performing? Are you back booking at Skinny Dennis and workin’ that?
ZO- Yeah, back bookin’ Skinny full-time. It started out as a part-time thing. Capacity was limited for a period of time and then eventually it was full capacity. I’ve been doin’ that, and I started playin’ a little bit here and there again. Maybe not as much as I used to ’cause I gotta be up earlier more often! That’s pretty much it right now, as far as that goes here. It’s been alright!
The huge, massive Highway Butterfly set, the tribute to Neal Casal– have you heard it yet?
Yeah! I got sort of like a preview of all the tunes once it was goin’ around to everyone that was on it. I haven’t heard it physically, which is probably gonna sound better obviously than compressed SoundCloud files, you know?
Well, it’s amazing! And really impressive– the breadth of Neal’s reach, the depth of his friendships, and really the scope of his influence. I think 41 tracks are on there, all different artists spread throughout so many different genres and time periods… You perform “Best To Bonnie” with a little help from a couple o’ members from Hazeldine. Tell me how you came to that song.
Well, I searched all around. Some of the tunes, I would be like, “Oh, how ’bout this one?” And then I would message [Neal’s] friend, Gary [Waldman], who’s kinda organizing it all. He’s managed me and I’ve known him a long time. “Ah, so-and-so’s already doin’ it!” Like, “Dang!” So then it was tryin’ to just dig a little deeper into some stuff that maybe people that know his music well, maybe they haven’t heard that stuff. Gary had mentioned that song and he said, “That’s always been one of my favorite ones.” He only ever actually performed it live with [Hazeldine], which is why they sang on it. I can’t remember the whole backstory with that. I feel like it was when he was on tour in Europe somewhere and they performed that song with him. I’m pretty sure that’s the only times that he did that. So it made sense to have them be involved in it. That was pretty cool!
Obviously, you give it a little bit more of a country, honky-tonk influence than the original version had. That’s your style, that’s what you do! And this is your band from Listening to the Music? The core players from that album?
Yeah, it’s the same dudes. The original tune was like a waltz feel, so we thought, “Hey, let’s not just record it exactly how he did it. Let’s put our own spin on it.” It took us a good while to find the right place, and then once it was there, it was like, “Oh, this sounds great! This is a good feel!” It sounds very different from the original recording, even though it’s the same song.
When we were talkin’ about Listening to the Music, at that point in time, you already knew that you were gonna be involved with the Highway Butterfly set, but I don’t know that you knew what you were doing. Or had you already recorded it?
Oh, I can’t remember! I’m not sure if I knew about it then– maybe I did? It’s hard to place the timeline of things now, especially with COVID! Everything’s all outta whack! But I would say if you remember it that way, then that’s probably true.
Where did you record it?
I have recorded it at [GB’s Juke Joint]. It’s in Long Island City. It’s a different place. I’ve never worked there before. That was still lockdown period, so it was interesting ’cause it was the first time we were all in the room together since before COVID making music. It just felt really great to be like, “Wow, okay, this wasn’t just a dream! We used to make music together! And we’re doin’ it right now! The world’s weird and people are freaked out, but at least we’re havin’ fun right now!” It was a nice space! Unfortunately, I didn’t make it out to Jim Scott’s studio, but it got sent out there and he mixed it and gave it his touch. Basically, we just recorded the tracks there and then said, “Mix it however you wanna mix it!”
I’m guessing that Shawn [Barton] and Tonya [Lamm] did their parts remotely?
Yeah, as far as I know. ‘Cause by the time we got to the point when I was doing it and then a bunch of other people, a lot of people had to do it during lockdown. They started to do it in the days leading up to when everything locked down. The original plan was that everyone would come to [PLYRZ Studio]. That was too bad that we didn’t get to do that, but it was still great. It still turned out great, and it was still cool that Jim Scott mixed it! I mean, he’s made tons of Tom Petty records and all sorts of amazing stuff, so it’s like, “Well, okay, I’m gonna trust that guy!” He knows how to mix a record, you know?
Did you record anything else while you were there at that studio?
We didn’t! I wish that we did, but honestly, I can’t remember if we had one other option for a song in case, for some reason, we just hit a wall. Or I had in my head, “We could check this one out if we suddenly have extra time.” But it really took a while to find the right vibe and get it to sound and feel good with never playing and not playing together in months. We were just trying to be respectful to the song and find the space that it should be in. It took a whole day to get the basic tracks.
Well, I don’t hear any streaks on the recording at all! And as a matter of fact, I think what draws the ear the most is that fantastic guitar solo with the wah on it. John Shannon– that’s him playin’ it?
Oh, yeah! It’s like a Mu-Tron. We went through all sorts of stuff, ideas for things, but I was like, “Hey, it’d be really great to hear a solo that’s really big sounding and really’s got some edge to it,” and he was like, “Yeah, I know what you mean. Let’s try to find that.” So we were just tryin’ stuff out in the studio with him on guitar after we had the basic tracks down. [John] put that effect on for a second, and we were like, “Whoa! That sounds cool!” And he’s like, “Ah, I don’t know…” I’m like “Dude, I know it’s a Jerry Garcia thing, but a lot of funk bands use that stuff and it kinda fits anyway!”
What’d you say it was?
It’s a Mu-Tron. This company makes these pedals and that’s the sound of one of ’em. There’s a couple of different ones, but it’s really well known that Jerry Garcia used it and it’s like his sound. But a whole bunch of other people and even contemporary bands are using it. It adds a nice touch to what my influences are, what I like, what we all like, and also coming from Neal’s world of doing Dead-related stuff and jammy stuff. It was like, “Oh, that’s a smart thing to put in there,” as opposed to just a regular guitar tone. He just put the pedal on, and I was like, “Oh that’s cool! Let’s do that!”
You talked about your first choice for the tribute, and I wanted to know if you could have done another one, what it would have been? What was your first instinct, the first song by Neal Casal that you wanted to include?
There was quite a few. Dori Freeman did one and it’s like, “Dang! Of course, they picked that one! That’s a great one!” That’s “Sweeten The Distance”. That’s one that lots of people know, people that know his music. It was a list of tunes– and some that I was just discovering! I was like, “Oh, cool! I’ve never really listened to this record!” When I first heard about [Neal], really, I had watched some videos of him doing “Sweeten The Distance”. That’s the first time that I ever really saw him perform– at least his own music. I might’ve seen clips of him with Ryan Adams? That song came to mind and some songs off that record.
We talked about you making Listening to the Music with Neal, how you met, how it all came together. When you think about that time making the record, what stands out to you? And as an artist, what did you take away from working with Neal that you’ll continue to use?
I think I’ll always be holdin’ somethin’ from his influence even as short-lived as it was. What do I take away from it? Honestly, the thing I took away from it the most was that I did really enjoy those moments. I was enjoying every minute of it! But it’s the thing where you’re like, “I wish I had taken more photos,” or, “I wish I had taken more video.” I wish that I had documented it more– but I thought that was just the beginning! When we did the last day in the studio, it was like, “Man, it’s so sad it’s over! Let’s do this again!” I was already sending him songs like, “Here’s some other stuff I’m workin’ on.”
You don’t know that’s gonna be the last time you’re gonna spend that kind of time with someone. I guess what I take away is to really try to cherish and appreciate the time that I have with every single person in my life because you just never know. It’s hard to quantify that or really how much can you enjoy someone, but that’s what I think about the most looking back.
Well, now tell me what you’ve got cookin’! Has the time since our last encounter been creative?
I’ve been workin’ more at just tryin’ to become a better guitar player. I like all sorts of other music. I love, of course, the Grateful Dead and Jerry Garcia and all that stuff and Grant Green and a whole bunch of other guitar players. I just got a burst of inspiration to try to lead a band playing a lot of that, like a mix of Dylan songs I love and all sorts of stuff that I’ve collected and discovered over the years. I’m trying to actually do that where I’m improvising and playing and performing, not just the singer-songwriter, but leading a band and doing that. So I’ve been workin’ a ton on that every chance I’ve gotten in my little studio space to just get more comfortable on guitar.
I feel like that’s a win-win situation because I do feel as though that’s only gonna make me a better songwriter by understanding music in a deeper way as a result. And it gives me more, different ideas. You mess around with pedals or different things like, “Ah, this is a cool sound! Everybody uses a phaser on their records! This could be cool with this!” So if you want to qualify that as creative!
I’ve been workin’ out some tunes here and there, but honestly, I’ve just been enjoying getting excited about learning guitar parts and how to do something for the first time, really actually takin’ the time to learn it. A lot of singer-songwriter people get trapped in this, “I can’t play guitar, I don’t play leads,” and they’re missing out! It’s easy to lean on good players. I’m trying to grow a little bit.