Circles Around The Sun-Wonder Bar – Asbury Park, NJ – 1/27/23
Review & Photos – Rebecca Wolf
I admit it. I approached the upcoming evening at Wonder Bar on 1/27/23 with a dose of skepticism. This skepticism was born out of lack of knowledge and exposure to the music and the band I was about to hear at this legendary bar in Asbury Park, NJ. For more than 20 years, this dive-y, beach bar/nightclub, has been associated with NJ natives Jon Bon Jovi and Bruce Springsteen, as well as E Street Band saxophonist Clarence Clemons. While Wonder Bar provides an intimate stage for showcasing original live music, and a cozy dance floor to rock the night away, it’s pet-friendly outdoor seating area brings the bar’s indoor/outdoor capacity to a whopping 2000 patrons. On this evening, Wonder Bar’s stage would be home to a band outside my typical musical experience, an instrumental, psychedelic, funk, jam band named Circles Around The Sun. Those descriptive terms were challenging for me to relate to, just outside my realm of musical experience. Having done an online search of the band’s music, I was intrigued by what I’d heard and was open to dipping my toes in a bit further. However, I wondered if I’d really connect to music that appeared to me to sound somewhat spacey and otherworldly.
Exploring the background of Circles Around The Sun, I learned that the band was born from a connection to the Grateful Dead. In 2015, singer, songwriter, guitarist, Neal Casal, was asked by the son of the Grateful Dead’s drummer to create music to be played during intermissions at the Dead’s upcoming Fare Thee Well concerts. Casal assembled musicians and recorded five hours of jams (with the feel of the Dead but a spacey twist all their own) and Circles Around The Sun came to life. With positive audience reaction, as well as industry interest, these five hours of music were pared down to10 songs and released as an album entitled Interludes for the Dead. The band members, Neal Casal (guitar), Dan Horne (bass), Adam MacDougall (keyboards) and Mark Levy (drums) remained together and debuted live in 2016. In 2018 they released their second studio album Let It Wander. After the untimely passing of Casal in 2019, the band members opted to continue Circles Around The Sun, just as Casal had wished. In 2022, after several changes in guitarists, the band found a perfect fit with John Lee Shannon, a longstanding collaborator with the band.
Circles Around The Sun will be releasing their fourth album, Language, this April, with the album’s first single “Outer Boroughs” having been recently released into the galaxy. The name of the song fits the feel of the music, a cosmic, just outside the universe sound. The vibe feels familiar (particularly to those having grown up in a certain earlier era), that smoothly flowing, 70s funk. It has a groove that’s easy to lose yourself in, as you drift off to outer regions. The title song, “Language,” previously released as a single in 2022, has its own celestial feel, intermingled with a disco-groove, that instantly leads you to move your body to the beat. Those words perfectly describe the atmosphere and sound at the legendary Wonder Bar, as Circles Around The Sun jammed for almost two hours and the dance floor remained filled with enthusiastic, dancing fans. The diversity of the crowd was most notable by the over 40 year age span. In front of me were young hipsters, girls with crop tops and guys with beanies, listening to what was to them, brand new, funky, psychedelic jams. To the side of me, were men with long grayish beards, seemingly longtime fans of the Grateful Dead, connecting to the vibe of their beloved jam band, with a twist of the new. As I turned my head and scoped out the audience I was struck by the fact that regardless of one’s age, background, or attire, all present appeared equally lost in the moment, tuned into the silky flow of the instrumental jams, as they danced and moved to the beat.
Of course no one was more zoned into the music than the four incredible musicians of Circles Around The Sun. Although Shannon is new to the band, watching him perform centerstage it was apparent he perfectly melds with the artistry and skills of his fellow band members. With eyes closed, Shannon deftly guided his fingers along the neck of his guitar and swaying to the psychedelic sounds. Equally lost in the moment was Horne, playing bass with closed eyes, bobbing his head and feeling the baseline beats. Tucked away at the back of the stage, Levy, on drums, alternated between a sly smile across his face and a look of wonderment, thoroughly enjoying his rhythmic role in the creating these grooving jams. The most animated band member, and fascinating to watch, was MacDougall, who displayed his passion for performing and band’s music through his facial expressions and grande gestures as he twisted and turned between his multiple keyboards.
With gleaming strands of light emanating from multiple disco balls, the aura of colored lights panning across the stage, and the groovy, psychedelic, funk sounds wafting from the stage, 2023’s Wonder Bar suddenly felt like a modernized 70s disco. Coming out to experience Circles Around The Sun for the first time that evening I had no idea what to expect. I’d put money on my Asbury Park Parking App not knowing how long I’d stay. However, as the night progressed I continued to add another 30 minutes, then another. I remained until the band left the stage, wondering to myself about the next time I’d be fortunate to attend a Circles Around The Sun performance, knowing in that instance there’d be no skepticism involved.