Circles Around The Sun Spins Into Houston

Circles Around The Sun will perform with Will Van Horn on Saturday, September 10 at Last Concert Cafe.
Circles Around The Sun will perform with Will Van Horn on Saturday, September 10 at Last Concert Cafe. Photo by Matthew Ream
There are few to no bands who have had the unexpected career trajectory of Circles Around The Sun. What began as pre-recorded intermission music for The Grateful Dead’s Fare Thee Well tour in 2015 with original songs written by the late guitarist Neal Casal blossomed into a band with a cult following and four albums with one more on the way.

Circles Around The Sun will perform in Houston on Saturday, September 10 at Last Concert Cafe with Houstonian Will Van Horn opening the show for their Texas dates.

Will Van Horn was put into the running as an opener by guitarist John Lee Shannon who had heard his work with the pride of Houston, Khruangbin and then checked out his solo EP Pedal Steel Guitar where he was blown away by Van Horn’s ability to push the pedal steel into the future.

“It’s fun,” says Shannon of being back on the road. Shannon stepped in to play guitar with the band a year ago and took part in creating the upcoming album Language. “It’s really fun to play new songs. It’s always fun to play new songs but it's especially fun in this band because you know, we haven't put out anything in a long time and the last time this band released music things were very different in every way.”

Things were very different indeed with Casal on guitar, Dan Horne on bass, mad scientist Adam MacDougall on keyboards and Mark Levy on drums. When Casal sadly ended his life in 2019, he left behind not only a legacy of work with bands including The Chris Robinson Brotherhood, Hard Working Americans, Ryan Adams and Gospelbeach along with his impressive body of solo work but also a note to his bandmates where he urged them to continue.

On top of his talent, Casal touched people in a special way with his presence and playing on stage that continues to resonate not only with fans, but his many talented friends who never seem to hesitate to mention him and propel his memory.

The band's experience with grief and suicide has also made them more aware of checking in on each other and trying to help their fellow artists navigate their at times strange and demanding careers helping one another to find balance and create space for breaks.

"I know that everybody is making an effort to just be good to each other and themselves and make sure that everybody is okay. I'm really happy to see all of the emphasis thats being put on people's mental health because it's hard especially these days where there's no other way to make it. People aren't buying music so you gotta go out there and sell tickets."  

Three years since his passing, they have launched the Neal Casal Music Foundation which provides instruments and lessons to youth in Casal’s native New Jersey area as well as donations to organizations that support musicians in need of mental health services.

“Neal was such an important person to a lot of people. He was a sort of cult of personality where he was the kind of guy that people were really drawn to and felt really connected to him. I don't think that will ever go away.”

Shannon describes how even now when they play shows, they can tell how many fans in the audience are there strictly because of Neal and their connection to the experience of seeing him and MacDougall play with the CRB. “I think he'll always be a big part of the band and a big part of everyone in the bands lives for sure.”

Much like everything has been with the band, Shannon stepping in was a natural fit that just seemed to make sense. “It’s definitely big shoes to fill but I try not to worry too much about it, have fun and do my best and that's another reason why it's really nice to have new music because it's a whole new thing. We can kind of create the future and honor the past at the same time.”

"It's really nice to have new music because it's a whole new thing. We can kind of create the future and honor the past at the same time.”

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Circles Around The Sun has always found a way to capture the hippy groove of the legends their music supported while making original songs that differ just enough from The Grateful Dead’s to sound familiar yet new.

“It’s really fun and rare I think to be in a band these days that has an audience that dances. Primarily at our shows, especially this last little run, pretty much every show you look out and the majority of people are getting down which is really fun. Most times these days you go see people playing instruments on stage. The crowd is just sitting down and watching, which is fine too.”

For their upcoming release, Shannon describes how the group pushed even further out to a dance heavy sound that many are relating to disco era pop and jazz.  This past spring, the band released their lengthy, ethereal disco single "Language" featuring the harpist Mikaela Davis who adds yet another layer of sound to the band's rich and intricate instrumentation.

Though the album does not have a release date due to the delays in vinyl pressings around the country, the band has been test driving some of the new songs for fans. Their fans, much like the players, are typically a receptive and responsive bunch that seek out those unrepeatable improvisational opportunities from the band to then let loose on the dance floor.

“The new songs are really cool. They're different. I feel like it's a little bit of a departure from even the previous record but it has all the same familiar stuff that we all love. They sound great live. It’s fun to play new music for people who have literally never heard it before.”

Fans also show their appreciation for the band's older songs which are “almost like standards at this point” from their first album, Shannon says.

“Most people that come out to see our band. It's cool because they are “heads” for lack of a better word. They're really all there for it. They want to hear all the weirdness and exploration that comes along with just going out there and letting stuff happen.”

Circles Around The Sun will perform with Will Van Horn at 7 p.m. Saturday, September 10 at Last Concert Cafe, 1403 Nance. $20-25.
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Gladys Fuentes is a first generation Houstonian whose obsession with music began with being glued to KLDE oldies on the radio as a young girl. She is a freelance music writer for the Houston Press, contributing articles since early 2017.
Contact: Gladys Fuentes