Cardinal knowledge

One of the most honest and sincere artists in music, Ryan Adams creates a concert vibe akin to hanging out with your best musician friends in their living room. With a three-guitar lineup that blends Adams’ with Neal Casal and pedal-steel maestro Jon Graboff, the Cardinals deliver a majestic alt-country-rock sound that makes playing the Majestic Theatre on this tour seem like

The band’s been riding a high and powerful wave since the mercurial Adams kicked his well-documented drug problems a few years ago, which only magnified the impact of January’s stunning revelation that this tour could be the last. Adams shocked fans with a heartbreaking blog post announcing that he’s stepping back from live music after this tour, largely because of hearing problems that have plagued him for the past couple of years. The Current caught up with guitarist Casal on the eve of the tour to discuss the intricacies of all things Cardinal.

“`Adams is` really struggling hard with some legitimate hearing problems, and if you can’t hear, you can’t play. So we’re just hoping there’s going to be some remedy for this, or that a break will ease this problem a little bit,” said Casal. “But no one can really be sure what the future brings, so we’re just going to really do our best to have a great tour here and enjoy the moments while we have them.”

The band has been on a peak ascension since Casal, who’s been friends with Adams since his Whiskeytown days in the ’90s, added his dynamic skills to the lineup in the fall of 2005.

“I had to learn hundreds of songs right off the bat; my early days in the band were a very intense period of time of learning to sing and play, often on the spot,” said Casal. “Because back then there wasn’t a tremendous amount of rehearsal. There was almost none, really. The way Ryan likes to work is all kind of on the fly, and you’re either ready for that kind of thing or you’re not, and I happen to be pretty well-versed in that way of working. I kind of enjoy it. I like the adventure.”

The Cardinals don’t classify as a true jam band but they will jam in powerful fashion when the muse moves them, leading to adventurous shows famous for unforeseeable magic moments.

“It’s something we never talk about. It just happens,” said Casal of the band’s improvisations. “Usually Ryan will sort of lead the charge, or he’ll tip us off that he wants to go in that direction, and we just know by very, very subtle movements and very subtle hints … not knowing what’s going to happen. …You can’t go there with an agenda, you have to go there with a collective sense of no agenda.”

That adventurous spirit brought Adams to the attention of Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh, who tapped Adams to play a few shows with Phil Lesh & Friends in 2005. Casal has also sat in with Lesh’s band, and Lesh with the Cardinals in what’s become a mutual appreciation society. Lesh still keeps several of Adams’s songs in his band’s rotation.

“Playing with Phil is instant mind expansion. It’s an instant feeling of freedom and adventure, and really there’s a certain joy that Phil brings to his playing of music that is absolutely infectious,” said a reverent Casal. “He really has taught me, and I know Ryan, too, so much about having an open approach to music.”

The supremely diverse Cardinals have also worked with Willie Nelson, with Adams producing Nelson’s 2006 Songbird album using the Cardinals as the backing band, a match made in country heaven.

“`Nelson’s` another guy who is very unpredictable to play with. You have no idea of what he’s going to do from one second to the other,” said Casal. “He doesn’t work with any kind of formula; his guitar playing is extremely unorthodox and hard to follow, and he’s really loose, you know his thing … and `he’s` also a master singer, too. He has such a remarkable voice, an incredible way with phrasing and patience. Willie is never in a rush to get anywhere, so you learn to slow down around Willie, and you learn patience, and you learn that each note counts and how to make each note that you play count a little more.”

Casal couldn’t confirm rumors that there’s a disc three of 2005’s acclaimed Cold Roses double album in the can somewhere, since he joined the band after it was recorded, but he confirmed that there’s plenty left over from the sessions for 2008’s Cardinology.

“There are a number of unreleased songs. I can’t remember how many, because it all became a bit of a blur after a while, but I can tell you that there’s lots of material that got left behind.”


Ryan Adams & the Cardinals
8:30pm Wed, Mar 4
The Majestic Theatre
224 E. Houston
(210) 226-3333

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