Feeling It: Eric Krasno on His New Band, New Voice

Alan Paul on July 7, 2016

It’s an exhausting experience trying to keep up with Eric Krasno for even a single night of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. Around 8 p.m., he walked off the outside stage of the Fiya Fest after an exhilarating set with Cyril Neville and Dr. Klaw, the supergroup he plays in alongside Nigel Hall, Adam Deitch and Dumpstaphunk’s Ian Neville and Nick Daniels. As he chatted with friends and wiped sweat from his face with a towel, a Fiya staff member grabbed Krasno’s arm and gently nudged him away. He had to get inside to the larger stage, where his Soulive bandmates were waiting and would soon start a funkified set with James Brown sax man Maceo Parker. When that ended at 10:30 p.m., and an overheated, enervated crowd drifted out, Krasno had some brief chill time backstage, before he headed back to his New Orleans digs to rest for a while.

He was preparing for the night’s final gig—or the next day’s first—as he took the stage at 2:30 a.m. in the French Quarter with Oteil Burbridge, Deitch, Hall and their special guest, jazz trumpet master Nicholas Payton. Kofi Burbridge and Neal Evans also dropped by for a mind-bending night of music. For at least one observer who stumbled out into the street as daylight approached, it was an exhausting and exhilarating musical adventure. Krasno kept up the same pace for two weeks. And these manic New Orleans days are but a microcosm of his life and a metaphor for his career; Krasno seems to be everywhere.

As a guitarist, producer, bandleader, songwriter and entrepreneur, it often seems there are few corners of the musical world that Krasno hasn’t touched in recent years. He’s best known for playing with Lettuce and Soulive since 1992 and 1999, respectively. But he’s also made his mark as a producer, label owner and guitarist for a wide range of artists—from soul legend Aaron Neville to melodic crunch duo The London Souls, both of whom record for Krasno’s Feel Records. He frequently plays with Phil Lesh & Friends and, more recently, Billy & The Kids. He has written songs for the Tedeschi Trucks Band, with whom he also toured as a fill-in bassist in 2013, and recorded with The Roots, Talib Kweli, Redman, Pretty Lights and even 50 Cent.

Lettuce drummer Adam Deitch, who met Krasno and the rest of the funk group’s founding lineup during a high school summer program at the Berklee College of Music, sums up why his longtime friend and collaborator can slide seamlessly into so many projects: “He’s a quite awesome person that people love to be around.”

Krasno will release his long-awaited solo debut, Blood from a Stone, on July 8 through Feel. It will be followed in short succession this summer and fall by the Eric Krasno Band’s first tour. The album features Derek Trucks, as well as members of Soulive, Lettuce and The London Souls, but the focus is squarely on Krasno: his songs, his playing and, for the first time, his singing.

“I’ve been writing vocal songs for other people to sing for a while, and I always sang on the demos,” Krasno says. “And when we first started this project, I thought I might do the same thing—bring someone else in to sing my parts, or maybe a bunch of different people. But as work on the album went on, I thought more and more that I should sing it all myself, and I really worked on it. Every time I play a show or sing live, I get better and more comfortable.”

The core of Blood from a Stone began several years ago during a Maine writing session Krasno had with Dave Gutter of the band Rustic Overtones.

“I went up to Maine and, within a day, we had three or four songs that ended up on the album,” says Krasno, sipping a beer in a bar around the corner from his Greenpoint, Brooklyn apartment. “We were being so productive that we set up a studio in a barn and Chris [St. Hilaire, The London Souls’ drummer], Stu [Mahan, bass] and Nigel [Hall, keys] came up to demo the songs, and most of them ended up being on the record.”

After those initial sessions, Krasno continued to work on his solo record between his other projects. “I was so busy with different things,” he says. “I held onto a few of those tracks and ideas and worked on the album off and on for a few years.”

When he found himself not quite able to put the finishing touches on the album, Krasno hooked up with Jeremy Most, who has worked with Emily King and many others. Most added some instrumentation and became the project’s coproducer, giving the collection of blues and jazz-influenced tunes a more modern, minimalist touch.

“I’m usually the guy getting things done and pushing other people’s albums along, and I needed someone to help me with that,” says Krasno. “I loved Jeremy’s production on Emily King’s albums. We reconnected after one of their shows and I played him the music. He loved it and had some ideas right away, which was really welcome. The flight was almost there, but I couldn’t land it and he helped me bring it in.

“I liked the tracks, but they didn’t feel like an album, and Jeremy helped me zone in and make some decisions about which tracks fit together and made for a cool journey. You want an album to sound cohesive, but not for every track to sound the same.”

The album’s long gestation gave Krasno a chance to grow into the music—to adapt to the songs as a singing frontman and whip the material into shape before hitting the road. “I’m really ready and very excited to go out and do this now,” he says. “For years, I was more used to playing jazz and funk, mostly instrumental and jam-based, and I’ve gotten more and more into performing songs.”

Krasno’s love of more song-oriented performances grew during his summer-long stint as Tedeschi Trucks Band’s bassist, in between Oteil Burbridge’s departure and Tim Lefebrve’s arrival. It thrilled him to hear crowds singing along, especially to the four songs he co-wrote on TTB’s Made Up Mind. His subsequent performances with Billy & The Kids and Lesh, playing the beloved Grateful Dead repertoire to appreciative audiences, furthered the feeling.

“I love jamming and being improvisational—and the Jazz Fest shows are the mecca where we try to see if we can take that vibration to another level,” says Krasno. “You also do that performing with the Grateful Dead camp, of course, but with them, it all starts with the songs, which is very apparent when every tune becomes a spirited sing-along. And everyone in my band is going to be singing, which is something I learned to love from playing the Dead music— all those harmonies—and missed in my other bands. I grew up on that music, so I’m kind of excited to make a full circle back to where I actually began.”

Krasno, a native of New Canaan, Conn., traces his own musical awakening to seeing the Dead and Allman Brothers as a young teenager and hanging around his brother Jeff‘s band in their family basement. He considers that Berklee summer program—where he first bonded with Deitch, guitarist Adam Smirnoff, bassist Erick Coomes and saxophonist Ryan Zoidis when he was only 16— the true start of his own career. Thrilled to find like-minded peers, the group jammed their summer away and pledged to return together in two years, a promise they remarkably all kept. A year later, Krasno transferred to Hampshire College, in part to study with jazz saxophonist Yusef Lateef. Lettuce kept playing together, but during a pause while most of the other members were in the funk/hip-hop group Fatbag, Krasno joined up with brothers Neal and Alan Evans as Soulive. Even as that band began to pound the touring circuit and record, Krasno remained in touch with Lettuce, which continued to perform whenever possible.

“Kraz is the godfather of the crew and has always been the guy who helped everyone out all the time,” says Deitch. “None of this would have happened without him.”

Krasno may have been born into his role. His grandfather Lou Krasno was a renowned klezmer and gypsy jazz violinist who fronted a group called the Gypsy Gems. His father Richard, a longtime academic and college administrator, is a skilled musician who was a DJ in San Francisco during the late ‘60s. His uncle Ron Kaplan— a Chicago bass player who became a booking agent— worked with Buddy Guy, Herbie Hancock and others, and was very involved in helping Lettuce and Soulive grow in their earliest days. And Jeff Krasno managed both Lettuce and Soulive and started Velour Recordings, which released the bands’ first albums.

“For a good while, Kraz was the only one who understood how to book Lettuce—how to get us shows, how to get paid,” says Deitch. “We were all about showing up and handling the music part but, at first, he alone saw the other side of this. He’s inspired all of us to be better businessmen—to be better at handling all the other stuff beyond the notes.”

Deitch says that everyone’s respect for Krasno and their long-term friendships helped cushion the blow when the guitarist announced he would ease up on touring with Lettuce; he now appears with the band at select dates.

“I just decided that I really wanted to push Lettuce and give it a fair shot,” says Deitch. “Everyone was on the same page, except Kraz, who was like, ‘I appreciate what you want to do but I need to do, something else.’ He’s a very good communicator, in terms of both friends and business. We totally understand what he wants to do and, as friends, we support him.”

While Krasno is preparing to release Blood from a Stone and hit the road with his solo band, don’t expect his focus to become singular. Krasno is adamant that Soulive and Lettuce aren’t going anywhere. He will keep performing with Lesh and Kreutzmann—and participating in the type of collaborative performances that have earned Krasno the distinction of being the guitarist who has appeared at New York jam-scene clubhouse Brooklyn Bowl the most. He’s also producing a movie in New Orleans, Take Me to the River, Volume 2, which focuses on the city’s rich musical heritage and bringing some of the city’s rock and soul legends together for collaborations with younger musicians and MCs.

Krasno’s ability to remain both musically restless and ever-focused and calm is impressive and reminiscent of Warren Haynes, with whom he shares a management team and a mutual respect. “Eric is one of those cats who has a good vibe and adapts well to different settings,” says Haynes. “Moving across genres, as he does, starts with having a reverence for so many different approaches— being truly moved by different types of music and studying what makes them tick. In order to be convincing in a lot of different settings, you have to have passion for them all and study them more than just a little bit. You have to go deeper and have that be reflected in your own voice. It’s really kind of a rare quality, and something Eric clearly possesses.”