Eric Krasno just jammed with Phil Lesh, original member of The Grateful Dead. Now he’s bringing his musical acumen to Portland to showcase his first solo album, Blood from a Stone.
“I’ve been playing with him on and off for last two years. His band varies, but I was lucky to have been with them a couple of times, sometimes with Chris Robinson, sometimes with Warren Haynes,” Krasno said from his Brooklyn home last week. “It’s fun. He likes to mix it up, take Grateful Dead songs and put a different spin on them.”
The guitarist Krasno has been penning lyrics with local legend Dave Gutter for the past two years. His new album was created when the two of them got together in the Port City to write some more and jam for a bit. Ryan Zoidis, from Rustic Overtones and Lettuce, joined them on sax. Some of the guys from London Souls came by to provide some percussion.
Several other Portland musicians, including a string quartet, jumped into the arrangement. What resulted for the background artist was a move into the limelight.
“Right off the bat, we started rolling on all these tunes,” said Krasno, who provided instrumental ideas to Gutter’s words. “The next thing you know, what we thought was a writing session became the recording.”
He was excited to record in Portland again and pleasantly pleased with the community support. “It was a discovery for me,” he said. “I love Portland but didn’t know how much great music or how many great artists there are.”
The original plan was to get together and have different singers featured on different songs. Once they got underway, however, Gutter told him he should go out front and sing, be his own artist. It took a little while for the concept to settle, “but when I got in the booth and started singing, it took on a new life.”
Krasno will play at the Portland House of Music & Events on Friday, Aug. 19. He’s set to perform with Alex Chakour (bass), Eric Kalb (drums), DeShawn Alexander (keyboards), Danny Mayer (guitar), and Mary Corso (backing vocals).
The new record features appearances with Derek Trucks and Soulive, in addition to several of the Portland minstrels. Previously, Krasno worked with Gutter to write songs for Tedeschi Trucks Band, and on Aaron Neville’s forthcoming album.
“I collaborated with Dave at my mother’s house in Vermont,” he said. “We went to the woods for a couple of days and wrote the Neville album. We’re still constantly working on stuff, via satellite, but we work better when we’re together.”
Krasno’s surprise move from songwriter to lead singer led him to title the new album Blood from a Stone. It’s a joking self-reference, one he says many reviewers have missed. At first, it was a separate single, but he liked the name so much he made it the title.
Krasno had lived in Portland for a short while in the mid to late '90s. He noted how much it has changed since then, how it had become “culturally more rich. There’s amazing food at places like Eventide (Oyster Co.) and Duckfat. I know some foodies there, and there’s great coffee and beer. From the music to the food, it’s just beautiful in the summer.”
He’s previously worked with such diverse talents as Norah Jones, Talib Kweli, Justin Timberlake, and 50 Cent. In more recent years, he’s written for and toured with Tedeschi Trucks, playing bass in their band.
“I had a lot more connection with them (than the other big name musicians), and the project won a couple of Grammys,” he said. “And of course, the Neville record coming out has been a dream gig.” On it, he worked with Gutter, imagining Neville’s life through at least 50 poems he had sent them.
“The cool thing for me was laying down music and melodies, like painting a picture. We created the sketch and Aaron would add the color. He was very involved in the process, something he had not done on his records in a very long time,” Krasno said. “The excitement level between all of us was high.”
Gutter’s long been a lyrical inspiration for him, opening up word channels he hadn’t known before. “Once he opens it up, it just flows. Sometimes in the songwriting process, that’s all you need. He helped me learn how to write bumper sticker lines and then fit them in like a puzzle,” he said. “Dave doesn’t stop until we get it right. We push each other in that way. I’ve never had a cowriter as excited about it as I was. We’re good for each other. We’ll forget to eat, sleep, or do anything else. It’s like a marathon.”
One of the best things about the new album, he says, is that the band is taking on its own identity while working through the songs. “There are two guitars and a lot of lush vocals. It’s nice to be able to hone in harmonies with the band, do these interweaving guitar things.”
Krasno has been involved in music for a long time, but says it’s thrilling to have a new gig. “I’m so inspired, going back into my roots and cherry picking, with (Carlos) Santana-like guitar and vocals, Crosby, Stills and Nash harmonies, and hip-hop references. It’s exciting to be able to throw all these things into this melting pot and hear something brand new come out of it.”
Playing live has given him additional insights, by churning away and working on the music. “Every night there’s a moment when something brand new happens,” he said. “It’s what we work for, to allow that spontaneity to happen within the songs.”
At the Portland concert, Armies (Gutter’s new incarnation with Anna Lombard) will open up, and Krasno expects he’ll be able to get them to join him for some songs during the main act. He wants to get to Maine early and have several practice sessions with the local musicians who helped him get here. Musically, it’s the way life should be.