It might take a scorecard to keep track of how Brooklynite Eric Krasno, as well as his many cohorts, became and remain involved with the New Orleans music scene. The guitarist, bassist, record producer, composer, label owner and singer says that the connection goes back some 15plus years, when he came to New Orleans with Soulive, one of the bands he co-founded, as the opening act for the Blues Brothers Tour at the House of Blues.
“I immediately fell in love with the city,” says Krasno, who hit Vaughan’s his first night in town to catch trumpeter/vocalist Kermit Ruffins and the Barbecue Swingers. After the HOB gig, Jim Belushi, the brother of the late John Belushi, who was an original member of the Blues Brothers, took Krasno uptown to the Maple Leaf Bar. Soulive also played the Mermaid Lounge during that trip, so Krasno got a big and diverse helping of New Orleans’ musical menu. He was hooked.
Krasno also met Ivan Neville during the same era (around 1999–2000), when Neville was playing organ with guitarist Robben Ford. Soulive was touring as the opening act for Ford’s band. “He just fit right in with us,” Krasno remembers of Ivan. “He was in Ford’s band but he was hanging out with our band.”
Fast forward some dozen years. Aaron Neville’s manager, Marc Allan, a friend of Krasno’s who was aware of his producing talents, suggested that he produce the renowned New Orleans vocalist’s next album. Krasno was assigned to re-envision Neville’s poetry as songs. “My songwriting partner David Gutter, he and I had imagined doing that gig, even before we got the gig,” remembers Krasno. “We actually had a couple of tunes already that we were like, ‘Oh this is perfect for Aaron.’ We kind of put it into the universe.”
“Be Your Man,” the impressive, soulful opening cut of Neville’s new album, Apache, is one of those songs that Krasno and Gutter, a guitarist and singer with the group Rustic Overtones, wrote with Neville in mind prior to the start of their collaboration.
The majority of the selections on the disc, however, were inspired by Neville’s poetry with Krasno and Gutter, revamping the words into lyrics and setting them into music. “The coolest thing was us imagining him singing a song and then hearing him singing it,” Krasno exclaims, the excitement of the moment still apparent in his voice. “It was literally like running through a finish line like, ‘Yes!’ The songs were based on the poems but sometimes they took on a life of their own.”
The New York, well really Brooklyn/New Orleans connections continue on Neville’s album and beyond. The musicians called in for the session include many members of Soulive as well as its “brother band” Lettuce, which Krasno also cofounded.
They include Krasno on bass and background vocals, Lettuce’s guitarist Adam Smirnoff, drummer Adam Deitch, saxophonist Ryan Zoidis and two members who are now New Orleans residents, trumpeter Eric “Benny” Bloom and singer/keyboardist Nigel Hall, who works as a background vocalist on Apache.
Krasno, who produced Hall’s outstanding debut recording, Ladies & Gentlemen… Nigel Hall, which was released on Krasno’s Feel Music label, remembers bringing Hall down to New Orleans for the first time and “dragging him” all over town.
Though he says that an overwhelmed Hall expressed his doubts about being up to all the action in the city, the vocalist and keyboardist soon made New Orleans his home. Lots of Lettuce/Soulive musicians appear on Hall’s album as well and besides leading his own group, Hall often performs with keyboardist/vocalist and New Orleans transplant Jon Cleary.
Krasno, who goes back and forth regularly between his home in Brooklyn and his place in New Orleans, appreciates the vibe of playing in the Crescent City. “In New Orleans you could be swinging or playing funk and the crowd would be dancing or be a part of it. They’d be contributing to the show. That was something we needed more of in New York so we have rallied our own scene.”
Both Soulive and Lettuce will be performing at the Bear Creek Bayou Music Festival, an event previously held in Florida that makes its New Orleans debut on Friday, September 30 and Saturday, October 1 at Mardi Gras World. Krasno, who’s played the event most years since its inception, calls the festival “a family kind of thing,” with a focus on musicians that are mixing it up on the evolving funk/soul scene. Soulive is among other musically likeminded groups performing the pre-festival event on Thursday, September 29 at the Joy Theater.
Krasno also plays with another highly linkedup band, Dr. Klaw, which includes guitarist Ian Neville, the son of keyboardist/vocalist Art “Papa Funk” Neville, and bassist/vocalist Nick Daniels, both of Ivan Neville’s Dumpstaphunk. He recently released an album under his own name, Blood from a Stone (Feel Music). Perhaps the big news on the disc is that Krasno, who’s renowned for writing music to be sung by other vocalists, takes the lead singer’s spot himself.
“I was always writing for and producing other singers and I originally thought other people would sing on my record,” says Krasno, whose primary role has been as a guitarist and sometime bassist and helping out as a background vocalist. “I sang as a kid. I sang in a choir. The guitar was just way cooler.” His friends and fellow musicians encouraged him to step out and take the lead on vocals. “They said, ‘Hey man, these songs sound like you. You should just put this out.’ So I started performing more and booking little shows.”
Those who prodded Krasno were right. The resulting product does sound like him, even if his voice isn’t necessarily familiar. It holds all the other elements of why his sound has been so successful. It contains that certain blend of old-school meets the here-and-now as it incorporates and extends the roots of soul, funk and blues—and even a touch of country on the ballad “Please Ya”—while giving everything the benefit of technology and a modern edge.
That’s exactly why Krasno was the right man for the job to produce and cowrite tunes for Aaron Neville’s Apache. Neville, after all, will always musically embrace his old-school and New Orleans roots whatever the genre—rhythm and blues, doo-wop, gospel—and, says Krasno, he was up for a new direction.
“I really wanted to hear Aaron sing over some soul tracks, some funk tracks,” Krasno continues. “When I explained that to him he got it. I told him I wanted to make a record as good as [Neville’s] Hercules and bring it into the future.” Krasno thinks that the tune “Hard to Believe,” written by himself, Neville and Gutter, came closest of Apache’s eleven cuts to capturing the feeling of Hercules. It’s old-school, yet refreshed.
“I kind of love all kinds of music,” Krasno declares. “That’s why being a producer is so appealing to me. I can go into different modes. I love jumping into the head of Aaron Neville and then the next month jumping into the London Souls and making a rock record.”
Krasno was surprised to learn that previously Neville hadn’t really been involved in post-recording production of his products. “He wasn’t really around during the tracking and mixing. He loved being in the studio and offered input in the creative process. He was really excited about what was going on and we were already excited.”
“First off, he’s the nicest guy in the world. He treated everyone so well and knew everyone on a first name basis. Everyone in the studio was his friend.”
It’s amusing to consider that Krasno had to sing the songs that, during a sleep-deprived retreat in Vermont, he and Gutter had transformed from Neville’s poems for the man who is considered by many as one of the greatest vocalists of all time. “It was nerve wracking to sing in front of him,” Krasno clearly remembers. In Brooklyn’s Studio G with Neville, the group “massaged” the material, in part, to bring them “into his world.”
Krasno calls Gutter, who he first teamed with for Blood from a Stone, an amazing lyricist. “He’s the verse man,” Krasno declares, saying that he often focuses on the music. “A lot of times we jump back and forth. The best thing is that we push each other to make a song better. While Krasno started his album before his work on Apache, it was put on a back burner as Neville’s project took precedence. Meanwhile Krasno also went out to play bass with slide guitar master Derek Trucks, who is featured on a fine cut, “Curse Lifter” on Blood from a Stone.
Krasno will feel right at home performing at the Bear Creek Bayou festival. He’s played at Mardi Gras World many times before, including at the Fiya Fest. Not only will the guitarist have his bros from New York with him for the Soulive and Lettuce shows, Ivan Neville’s Dumpstaphunk—filled with friends and fellow Dr. Klaw members—will be there too. The guitarist has also long been a regular at Jazz Fest, performing with the bands with which he’s affiliated.
Eric Krasno credits the brilliant jazz saxophonist and multi-instrumentalist Yusef Lateef, with whom he studied in college, for his diverse musical path. Lateef advised: “Find your voice and speak that voice.”
“He helped push me into being an artist rather than just a player.”