Highway Butterfly: Neal Casal's Songbook Finally Gets Its Due in a Posthumous Album of Carefully Curated Covers
Featuring an amazing roster of friends, this record serves as an inspired tribute and introduction to the guitarist.
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When Neal Casal took his own life in the late summer of 2019, it sent a shockwave through the tight-knit roots and jam music communities. Known as a member of The Cardinals, Chris Robinson Brotherhood, Beachwood Sparks, GospelbeacH, Circles Around the Sun, and so many other projects, Casal kept himself highly involved in the scene. Not only was his guitar work in high demand, but his generous demeanor made his passing that much more unexpected.
While Casal was mainly known as a member of other people’s projects, his material released under his own name is appreciated by anyone who has taken the time to dig into it. A true singer-songwriter in the traditional sense, Casal’s solo material has a laidback Southern California feel in the same mind as the scene’s greats in the ’70s. Starting with Fade Away Diamond Time in 1995, Casal would release fourteen records in his lifetime.
After almost two years of being in the works, his friends and family have come together to release Highway Butterfly: The Songs of Neal Casal, a sprawling set of 41 artists and 130 musicians that give his solo work their proper due. Led by Casal’s close friend and longtime manager, Gary Waldman, it’s the best lineup for a tribute album since 2016’s Day of the Dead, a Grateful Dead compilation assembled by the Dessner brothers of The National.
The project’s genesis came when Waldman organized a tribute show for Casal at the Capitol Theatre in the Hudson Valley. A gesture for donations to MusiCares, the Neal Casal Music Foundation was formed to donate musical instruments to schools in the New Jersey and New York areas that Casal had grown up. With the idea of a covers album, Waldman began a Kickstarter to raise production funds. Initially planned as eighteen songs, the project turned into over three hours of music, all expertly co-produced by Widespread Panic’s Dave Schools and Casal’s longtime mentor and producer, Jim Scott.
For fans of the community, this compilation is can’t miss. Starting with one of my favorite Casal tunes, Aaron Lee Tasjan puts in a superb effort for “Traveling After Dark,” and a hybrid of Beachwood Sparks and GospelbeacH offer a heartfelt version of “You Don’t See Me Crying.” Billy Strings continues to have a massive year, joining Circles Around the Sun for “All The Luck in the World,” who also show up again with Jimmy Herring for the gorgeous instrumental version of “Bird with No Name.”
There’s plenty of jam band royalty here with Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks performing “Day in the Sun,” Phil Lesh and The Terrapin Family Band on the legendary “Freeway to the Canyon,” and Warren Haynes’ signature guitar work for “Free to Go.” Besides Lesh, there are plenty of Grateful Dead family members with Oteil Burbridge and Steve Kimock on “Superhighway” and Bob Weir joining Schools and Jay Lane on “Time and Trouble.”
As impressive as these versions are, there are a few great surprises on Highway Butterfly. I can’t say I’ve listened to Johnathan Rice often in the last fifteen years, having been familiar with his work with Jenny Lewis. Still, I wouldn’t have considered myself a fan before his excellent cover of “Me & Queen Sylvia,” which ends up as one of my favorite moments in a crowded field. Comedy Renaissance man Tim Heidecker shows up for “The Cold and the Darkness,” channeling Warren Zevon in an exquisite moment. This won’t come as a surprise to anyone who has been following Heidecker’s turn as a charismatic singer-songwriter, but he really steps up for this one. I also appreciate J Mascis of Dinosaur Jr. disrupting the flow with his fuzzed-out version of “Death of a Dream.”
If you’ve talked music with me, I have no doubt brought up Casal, whom I’ve been a long time fan (I once ran into him with the rest of The Cardinals at the now gone Denver Diner after a Red Rocks set in 2007, and completely froze like a dork) and awarded his last outing with Circles Around the Sun as my favorite record from last year, so needless to say I’ve been looking forward to this one. As an admirer of his solo albums, it’s beyond touching to hear all of these fantastic artists come together for a good cause, as all proceeds will go to the Neal Casal Music Foundation.
The chances are that you are unfamiliar with Casal’s songbook and Highway Butterfly is a stunning introduction served up by some of the best in the business. Let me know if there are any in particular that you love - there are plenty to choose from!