060519 Circles Around the Sun, Burlington, VT

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Way back in July of 2015 I found myself standing on the floor (three times) between sets at the Grateful Dead reunion/50th anniversary shows in Chicago.  At least one of those times my ears perked up and noticed the ambient instrumental jammy music that was being piped through the mains during the setbreaks, and my perked ears liked what they were (barely) hearing.

Not long after the run of shows I discovered that the setbreak music had been commissioned by the Dead specifically for the reunion shows and a group of notable jamtenders banded together under the name Circles Around the Sun to fill the contract.  I guess they must have perked up more ears than just mine because not long after those Chicago Dead shows Circles Around the Sun (or CATS if you prefer, and I kind of do) released their setbreak music on vinyl and whattya know, m’lady put a copy under our cute little xmas tree with my name on it – bless her holiday heart – and I pretty much could not stop listening to it.

CATS fits perfectly into the instrumental chilled-out jam-spa-rock niche that I had been looking to have filled, and I guess I wasn’t the only one because they ended up recording a second album and whattya know again, once more it ended up under the tree.  Heck, CATS even started touring!

Which brings us (or me and m’lady, at least) to June 5th, 2019, when Circles Around the Sun played the closest place to Ottawa we could hope for, at Higher Ground in Burlington, Vermont, just four hours away.

It was the first real road trip in our new used (but basically new) Ford Escape, a former RCMP G7 vehicle with just 7,000kms on it that we purchased through a government auction for about 35% off the sticker price, and it got us down there nice and smooth, and a far sight cheaper on fuel than our long-standing (and recently sold) Mitsubishi would have been.

For the first time we ate in the ’50’s-style diner across the street from the venue (it won’t be the last time) before heading across the street for the show.  Also for the first time we didn’t have to wait outside Higher Ground in a huge line to get in, which was such a shock that we lingered outside chatting with people simply out of habit.  

When m’lady and I stepped inside we both started with the local legend: a tall can of Heady Topper IPA beer but y’know, neither of us were all that hopped up about it.  And looking around it seemed like nobody else was drinking it either.  Perhaps Heady Topper got so popular that nobody drinks it anymore?  

Anyway, the show was in Higher Ground’s smaller room – yet another first for me – and I was surprised to see about a hundred people in there when the band went on.  The band was surprised too, mentioning after the first song that they were expecting maybe six people in the crowd, this being their first time playing in Burlington.

That first song was quite good, one of my faves from their first record, but it didn’t take me long to notice that aside from the bridge it was just a two-chord two-bar vamp with no melody to speak of (hence the chill, spa-like aspect of the music).  Same for the second song, and again for the third…

…and by then the curtain was completely and irrevocably pulled back, and behind that curtain I saw a hapless wizard in his new clothes pulling at just two little levers.

It made me realize that I had never really listened very closely to Circles Around the Sun before, despite having listened to the records dozens and dozens of times.  But of course, that’s how the music was designed.  It was, after all, intended to be ambient chamber music to fill the sonic chasm of a 70,000 person-strong setbreak; something to be subtly appreciated while one waits in line for a beer or a hot dog.  Or both.  

The point is, if I ever find myself at another CATS concert I should just make sure I’m doing something else as well, like maybe sitting in a hot-tub on Jamcruise, say.  Then maybe I’ll go back to really digging the band.  Until that happens I’m a little bit afraid of putting on their records.  I might catch myself listening.

(Edit to add: Tragically, Circles Around the Sun would have only ten shows remaining with their leader the late Neal Casal at the helm, who took his own life less than three months after this concert.  The band carries on with the prolific Eric Krasno taking over guitar duties.)

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