There are two types of musicians in this world.

Some search out the spotlight, forever drawn to the roar of the crowd and the clamoring of the masses. Others seek solace in the shadows, content with the stories their fingers tell, confident in the truths they represent.

When the Chris Robinson Brotherhood rolls into Pensacola on September 12, keep an eye, or better yet an ear, on their guitarist Neal Casal. You won’t be able to turn away.

Casal has been a guitarist since childhood, when The Rolling Stones captured his imagination and changed him forever. His voice gets giddy when he starts to tell the story.

“At ten years old, I was sitting in the floor of the living room when my mom turned the radio dial. There was something coming out of the speakers that felt like it was from another land. Vocal grunting interwove with this rhythmic Conga line, and a voice proclaimed, “Please allow me to introduce myself…”. By the time that guitar solo became an ice pick in my brain, I knew my life was changed.”

With a reaction like that to the music, his family knew he was off to the races.

“Everybody knew this was all I was ever going to do. There was never anything else,” he says.

Casal’s stunning guitar work has put him in constant demand as a sideman, and rightfully so, but what first got him going is writing. He makes it a point to continue to do so no matter how busy he gets.

“I’ve been releasing solo records for over two decades now. Songs are the bedrock. They will always be for anything I do long-term. You can have the most perfect, mind-blowing playing, but if there’s not a song behind it, it can only move me so much.”

It should come as no surprise then that Casal has been drawn to such prolific songwriters throughout his career. Between Ryan Adams, Todd Snider, and Chris Robinson, one could argue (and I’d be happy to do so should you buy me enough beer) that Casal only associates himself with the greatest songwriters of the modern era. These three artists each in their own way represent the tortured artist archetype and have been accused in the past of being difficult to work with.

That doesn’t matter to Casal in the slightest because of that one word: the song.

“I’m absolutely drawn to them because of the way they write, and they’re most likely drawn to me because they recognize how much it matters to me,” he explains.

In transitioning to the project he’s currently touring, The Chris Robinson Brotherhood, Casal sings the same tune.

“We’re all veterans of the road at this point. With as many dates as we do, it’s vital for us to be continually writing new tunes when we are on the bus and soundchecking.”

The CRB’s new record Barefoot in the Head was released in July and continues in pressing the California jam ethos forward, but as much fun as these records are, it’s the live experience that’s the main draw for fans. With two sets each night and spaces set aside for organic psychedelia to sprout, The Grateful Dead is the obvious comparison.

Casal doesn’t shy away from it.

“The music of The Grateful Dead, not just Garcia, but the entire collective, sets a very high bar for all of as musicians. It inspires us to aim as high as we can when it come to every part of what we do - from the songwriting to the singing to the technical equipment and sound design. They were interested in every part of the game and that’s what made them so cool. They are our forefathers and we are proud of that.”

The transcendent nature of live Dead is what many seek at these types of shows, but that has no bearing on what the band sets out to do each night. The Chris Robinson Brotherhood is out to create, not recreate, and that, in its essence, is what the Grateful Dead was all about - toeing the line between imitation and inspiration.

“If it teaches people anything, it’s to search for your own identity and contribution to the world of art,” Casal proclaims. “Use inspiration to be sure and listen everything you can, but do not get hung up on trying to be anyone else. It’s a bad idea that won’t wear well through the years. Find yourself and don’t get comfortable using someone else’s template for playing, writing, and living.”

This reverence for the past and reluctance to rest on it translates to all sorts of different people in different fields. Casal continues.

“Now more than ever, we need originality. It’s hard to come up with because so much great stuff has been done in the past, but we have to keep striving to find our own voices.”

Yet for all this waxing poetic, The Chris Robinson Brotherhood remains a rock and roll band, and a compelling one at that. This will be a party, no doubt, but it also has the potential to take off to the stratosphere.

So come out to Vinyl Music Hall Monday night, but be sure to take it all in, the yin and the yang, the spotlight and the shadows, the jam and the song. To miss some is to miss it all.

Photo: Jay Blakesburg