Chris Robinson Brotherhood Guitarist Neal Casal on Willie Nelson: "He Plays a Mean Game of Pool"

Neal Casal is a man of many hats. A prolific and fully realized recording artist in his own right, Casal has released a steady flow of his own albums since the early '90s, worked with artists like Tift Merritt and Willie Nelson, and has released a book of his photography, Ryan Adams and the Cardinals: A View of Other Windows, documenting the time he spent in his most recognizable role as band mate to the alternative country superhero.

The New Jersey born Casal recently found himself playing the role of sideman once again, this time as a member of the Chris Robinson Brotherhood, a band that displays both Casal and the former Black Crowes frontman's neo-hippie sonic tendencies in a way that is neither filtered nor abbreviated. 

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New Times caught up with Casal during a stop in New Orleans to discuss his life as a sideman, his photography, and losing pool to Willie Nelson. 

New Times: So are you on tour right now?

Neal Casal: Yeah, I'm on tour with the CRB, and we've been on the road solid since June. We played Tipitina's last night. It was a really good show. We've been playing a lot, so our band is in very fine form right now. 

What was it like recording The Magic Door after putting in time on the road and having so more time as a band?

Actually, the basic tracks for both albums were recorded at the same time, so both records are part of the same sessions essentially -- the only difference is that they were overdubbed a couple of months apart. The production on The Magic Door is maybe a bit more sophisticated or developed just because we learned a few lessons from doing the overdubs on Big Moon Ritual

The Magic Door definitely has a little more focused sound than Big Moon Ritual.

It is, yeah, it definitely is in terms of production for sure. We're learning how to make records as we go here, and Big Moon was our first stab at it, so it was cool that we got to refine the process a bit for Magic Door.

For you as an individual, I've always noticed that regardless of the artist you work with, you always have a thread of the jammy feel to what you do. Is this gig a bit more ideal for you and your tastes?

Yeah, it really is! The CRB really is a perfect forum for everything that I'm into musically. I mean, I get to sing a lot of harmonies, which is something that I love and I'm pretty good at, I guess? And I get to play more guitar than I've ever played in my life in any band really, so for that to come along for me -- a little bit later in my musical life --  has been a real gift, and a really amazing thing. It's been such a good learning experience, this band -- you know? I've gotten to stretch my guitar playing and my musicality and I'm just currently in the throes of another great learning curve. 

But yeah, being in this band has been just great for me, really. To be able to stretch out instrumentally like this is just amazing, and Chris has brought out so many new things in my musical tricks that I didn't even know was there, or things I knew were there and I wanted to explore, but never really had the chance to in other bands. Most groups are too afraid to play a number of 10 minute songs in a row, and we have no fear of that, you know? 

Obviously as a member of the Cardinals, you got to stretch a bit live, but the band was more song based. 

I was very lucky in the Cardinals too. Ryan, of course, is into a lot of really cool instrumental passages in the songs and he loved to stretch out, and he's into a lot of noise music and noise guitar stuff that I really love as well, so being in the Cardinals was also totally great for me. I got to sing all of those harmonies in that band too, and of course -- you know -- the song quality in that group was just so high, but there's really no comparing. I was asked recently what's the different between the Cardinals and the CRB and they are just totally different things to me. 

You've been pretty busy outside of the CRB since 2011, between your solo work, your work with the CRB, you managed to work with Ryan Adams again on his last album, correct?

Yeah, I did. I played guitar on a few songs and I sang some harmonies. It was cool, and it's a really good album. Those sessions were really incredible; the great Glyn Johns produced that record and to have the chance to work with him for a short period of time was truly an honor beyond belief, it was mind blowing. Ryan was in such amazing form vocally, and musically, and personally, those sessions were really enjoyable. 

What can one expect from a CRB show?

Well, you can expect a trip through some major chapters of the American songbook for sure. We're a band with a lot of range and we cover a lot of ground, and it's a long three-hour show with two sets, and we put everything we have into every show we do, so if people are coming for a typical 90 minute experience with a band, be prepared for more! 

You're a pretty prolific photographer as well. Are you planning on releasing another book of photos ever, and have you been keeping up with that side of your art on the road?

Oh yeah, always! The photographer never stops, I'm looking at my camera right now across the room from me! I always have it with me and I'm silently planning another book -- I don't know what it will be about and I'm not sure how I'd get it off the ground -- but yes, I would love to make that happen someday. 

I'd love to make a book of my not so band specific work, like my street photos or abstract photos. That's my ultimate dream, to create an art book really. How I'll do that, I don't know -- as far as resources go -- but I plan it every day. I'm always working towards it, it may be years from now, but absolutely, photography is an on going practice for me and it's just as important as music and it's all very integrated. it's almost like I'm creating images for songwriting as I'm doing it, and the traveling inspires the photographs and it all just adds to the artistic lifestyle for me. 

It's all very cyclical, isn't it? 

It really is! I don't even know if the music could survive or thrive as it does without the photos. They're really inseparable now. I love documenting my entire life, but particularly the bands I'm in. It just adds so much to all of it.

You've worked with Willie Nelson. Do you have any good stories about working with a legend like Willie?

He plays a mean game of pool, I can tell you that! No matter how much weed he smoked, he played a real sharp game of pool! I almost beat him -- I played him several times and came damn close, but I never managed to catch him. 

Uh, he let me play Trigger (Nelson's iconic acoustic guitar), so that was cool! I also got to teach him how to sing a song. Ryan had the idea to do "Songbird", that Fleetwood Mac tune, and it ended up being the title track of the record, and Willie didn't know the song. So, Ryan sent me to the piano with Willie to teach him how to sing the song, so that was a pretty cool moment for me. 

An Evening with the Chris Robinson Brotherhood at 8 p.m., Sunday, October 21 at Culture Room, 3045 North Federal Highway, Fort Lauderdale. Tickets cost $20 with fees. Visit cultureroom.net

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