Circles Around the Sun was formed of sonic stardust from the big bang of the Grateful Dead's 2015 "Fare Thee Well", a series of shows that were equal parts reunion, redemption and revelation. First created to compose intermission music, the circle rolled downhill of its own accord, and quickly snowballed into its own force of nature. Like Pinocchio's sunshine daydream, they believed hard enough to turn into a real band. Their second album, 2018's "Let it Wander", saw the quartet evolve into their own expansive sound, with a bedrock foundation in the San Francisco '60s but an ear for the entire musical Milky Way.
The band is led by guitarist Neal Casal and keyboardist Adam MacDougall, both veterans of Chris Robinson Brotherhood among many other projects. Bassist Dan Horne perfectly captures the spirit and philosophy of Phil Lesh while still blazing a wholly original trail. Drummer Mark Levy is the launchpad, grounded in concrete yet essential for liftoff. Their adventurous and open-minded approach is a perfect fit for the cosmic American music they embrace, sharing a sense of discovery and adventure with the audience.
CATS lit the fuse in Raleigh's Lincoln Theatre and launched straight into space with "On My Mind", a 20 minute exploration of swirling kaleidoscopes. Not every band can kick ass without stepping on each others' toes, but their ideas interlace to create a huge sound with each nook and cranny soaked in syrup. The chunky march of "Gilbert's Groove" came next, with almost 15 minutes of abstract psychedelia distilled to its essence, like streamlined auditory adrenaline. CATS is entirely instrumental - all jam, no sham - and truly a jamband by definition. With numerous trips over 15 minutes, the 2+ hour show included just 9 songs.
The set soared on with the catchy bounce of "Halicarnassus" building up to a colossal peak, followed by "Immovable Object" and a new number. Effortlessly morphing from composed sections to improvisations, the musicians seemed linked to a shared central nervous system, first stating a theme and then twisting it inside out into a psychedelic pretzel. Without traditional song structures to grasp onto, the listener is forced to float freely, cast about like a note on the wind.
"Scarlotta's Magnolias" bloomed into an ecstatic explosion, highlighting the joyousness and exuberance that genuinely sets this band apart. The fast-paced "Ticket to Helix NGC 7293" led into a thick and funky "Saturday's Children" to end the set. An energetic encore of "One For Chuck" brought the ship safely back to Earth, with the smiling passengers sporting a new stamp in their planetary passport. The circle is indeed unbroken, and the future is bright.
- Paul Kerr
- Photos by Tim Hobert