‘Real, organic musicians’: Circles Around the Sun gets its groove on

 

When Chuck D of Public Enemy fame praises your band, you know you’re doing something right. Such was the case when the legendary rapper stopped by the Castaway 7 Studios in Ventura, California earlier this year to check out Circles Around the Sun, a four-piece group formed in 2015 to record some Grateful Dead-influenced instrumentals to be played on the P.A. during the Dead’s “Fare Thee Well” tour. The band members — guitarist Neal Casal (Ryan Adams & the Cardinals) and keyboardist Adam MacDougall (The Black Crowes), who also play together in the Chris Robinson Brotherhood, joined by bassist Dan Horne and drummer Mark Levy — had finished and were playing back the first song they recorded when the charismatic rapper unexpectedly stopped by. “When the track was over, he said, ‘You guys are real, organic musicians. You can’t be replaced. Don’t ever forget that,’” says Casal in the band’s press materials. “It was amazing to get that kind of encouragement from an artist we all love.” The experience inspired the group to title the unnamed tune “Song for Chuck,” and it’s one of the highlights of Circle Around the Sun’s sophomore album, “Let It Wander,” released recently on Rhino Records. The album is a follow-up to “Interludes for the Dead,” a well-received double-album released in late 2015. The overwhelmingly positive response, for both the music created for the Dead tour and the album, led to several acclaimed live shows. That and the band’s love of playing together have inspired the group to keep it going. “The music was not recorded with the intent of being released,” Casal told Colorado’s Marquee Magazine last year. “So the fact that it turned into a record was amazing, and the fact that there has been some demand for us to play it live has been amazing as well. Sometimes, the best things in life are the ones you don’t plan for, and this is a great example of that.” “The chemistry the four of us had was instant and undeniable,” says MacDougall. “It felt like we’d barely scratched the surface of what we could do, which is why we wanted to get back in the studio.” “We were chasing a particular sound the first time around, so the process was slightly more structured,” adds Horne. “For this record, that map was gone, and we were on our own.” The band clearly embraced its newfound freedom on “Let It Wander,” an apt title for a double album with only seven songs. The tunes typically clock in around seven to eight minutes long, while both disc-closers are epic romps just under 20 minutes long. The buoyant laid back groove of opener “On My Mind” is enhanced with percussion by Jeff Franca, and sprinkled with occasional changes that conjure “The Music Never Stopped” by the Dead. “One For Chuck” is a definite highlight and the most accessible song of the session, a breezy and pleasing six minutes of instrumental bliss. “Immovable Object,” a MacDougall original — and the only tune not written by all four members of the band — serves up a languid groove and sturdy melody with the keyboardist creating a Minimoog symphony. “Tacoma Narrows,” which started as a bridge in another song before striking off on its own, is a funky shuffle that sidetracks into spacey guitar jams. Franca’s percussion also supercharges the hypnotic “Electric Chair (Don’t Sit There).” The super-funky “Halicarnass,” named after the ancient city that was home to a beautiful mausoleum that was named one of the Seven Wonders of the World, rides a 7/8 time signature to great effect. And “Ticket to Helix” takes a celestial journey to close out the album. “Let It Wander” is a self-assured album from a band of tightknit, simpatico musicians who are finding their distinctive sonic path and clearly enjoying the ride. “More than anything,” says Casal, “what you hear on this album is a band growing into its own sound.”   Higher Ground Circles Around the Sun performs at 9 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 25, at Higher Ground Showcase Lounge, S. Burlington. Tickets are $20 (all ages); call 877-987-6487 or go online to www.highergroundmusic.com.

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