Various Artists

Highway Butterfly: The Songs of Neal Casal

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Highway Butterfly: The Songs of Neal Casal Review

by Thom Jurek

Highway Butterfly: The Songs of Neal Casal is yet another tribute album, but it's as different from others as producer Hal Willner's gloriously themed tributes to Nino Rota and Thelonious Monk were. Casal died in 2019 at age 50. A fine guitarist, songwriter, bandleader, and sideman, he left behind 14 albums, played with Hazy Malaze, Beachwood Sparks, GospelbeacH, and Circles Around the Sun. He did long stints with Blackfoot, Ryan Adams & the Cardinals, Chris Robinson Brotherhood, and Hard Working Americans, and amassed hundreds of studio credits with Willie Nelson, Lucinda Williams, Amanda Shires, Gin Wigmore, and others.

This multi-disc collection features more than 130 musicians performing 41 Casal songs. Longtime manager Gary Waldman envisioned it after a live tribute raised more than $25,000 to create the nonprofit Neal Casal Music Foundation. He undertook a crowdsourcing campaign for this charitable project and enlisted Dave Schools and Jim Scott as co-producers. Sessions commenced at Scott's L.A. studio in February 2020 and completed in 2021. Among the dozens who contribute are Hiss Golden Messenger, Phil Lesh, Shooter Jennings, Dori Freeman and Teddy Thompson, Vetiver, Victoria Reed, and Allman-Betts Band.

Casal's songs are a seamless, high-quality match for the studio talent. Aaron Lee Tasjan's deeply moving rendition of "Traveling After Dark" opens the collection: "We all want something real/And we're all hoping to find/A closer way to feel/Just one thing to remind/Just one way to forgive..." His resonant tenor rises above jangly electric 12-string guitars, tambourine, and a Hammond B-3. The Nilsson-esque "You Don't See Me Crying" is wonderfully performed by a combined Beachwood Sparks and GospelbeacH. Marcus King and Erik Krasno offer a souled-out read of "No One Above You. "Detroit or Buffalo" by Jonathan Wilson and Hannah Cohen and the haunted "Day in the Sun" by Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks close disc one. The second kicks off with the instrumental "Bird with No Name" from Circles Around the Sun with guest guitarist Jimmy Herring. Later, Kenny Roby and Amy Helm team for the gospel-tinged, horn-drenched Americana of "Too Much to Ask" before Bob Weir delivers the biting, bluesy "Time and Trouble." J Mascis renders "Death and a Dream" with garage band intensity before Tim Heidecker offers the anthemically sad "The Cold and the Darkness." Warren Haynes offers a forlorn "Free to Go" to close the side. The final disc opens with Rachel Dean's tender, indie pop-meets-Doc Pomus read of "So Far Astray." It precedes Steve Earle's poetic, world-weary version of the title track. Zephaniah OHora and Hazeldine perform the country song "Best to Bonnie." Robbi Robb's closing take on "Weep No More" is interspersed with Casal's disembodied voice from an interview.

The package contains a large booklet adorned with Casal's photos, lyrics, and discographical info, with a moving liner essay by Jim Cardillo. Highway Butterfly is remarkable because there isn't a weak song or performance included. Hopefully, its release will spur serious interest in reissuing Casal's catalogue.

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