The Art Of The Sit In | Eric Krasno
Welcome to another edition of The Art of the Sit-In, where we mix it up with the scene’s most adventurous players and hear some stories from the road. For more, check out our recent interviews with Tom Hamilton, Jeff Chimenti, Allie Kral and many others.
How best to introduce this column’s subject? We don’t have to. As one of the best-known and most ubiquitous players in the jam scene, beloved by fellow musicians as well as fans, there aren’t many stones unturned by Eric Krasno.
Krasno’s is a restless spirit. He remains core to Soulive, Lettuce and the whole Royal Family apparatus, but still manages to take on countless other projects, from production duties, one-offs and sit-ins to his ongoing solo work, which includes a forthcoming album and a very interesting new band to support it.
With the fifth installment of Bowlive – Soulive’s annual Brooklyn Bowl residency – about to kick off, we had Kraz fill us in on all the details.
JAMBASE: So I remember talking to you about the first Bowlive back in 2010 and here we are, wow, it’s Bowlive 5. Has the success of this surprised you at all?
ERIC KRASNO: You know, I guess so. It’s one of those things where we didn’t have any idea if it was going to work out. The venue itself surprised me a lot, not only how great it became as a place to play but how much support it’s gotten. Pete Shapiro knows how to put together a good team, and he’s fearless, it’s all “let’s just do this and reach for the stars.”
I sat in with the Allman Brothers – this might have been even a year before the first Bowlive and before Brooklyn Bowl had even opened. I ran into Pete at the show and he told me about it and he was like, “It’s going to be this bowling alley and music venue and I want you guys to do two weeks.” And I’m nodding and thinking, yeah, that’s never going to happen.
But then as it got closer, and I saw the space, I remember thinking, I can see this working out, oh yeah. I’ve played there now, I can’t even imagine how often, maybe 100 times. I think I’ve played there the most out of anyone who’s played on stage, although Questlove has been there almost every week as a DJ. It’s pretty crazy. I live down the street. I’ve seen the neighborhood change all around it and all these things happening.
JAMBASE: It seems like you guys have settled on eight shows as the Bowlive format. You could do more and probably still pack the place or do fewer and really load up the nights. How did you arrive at eight as the number?
EK: I think it was [manager] J. Bau’s idea. It’s a good number. It’s hard to do the Tuesdays and Wednesdays twice and fill it out like that, and it’s also taxing for the band, because we’re learning music every day. I like the idea of starting on a Thursday because you know it’s going to start off with a nice vibe, whereas if you start off earlier in the week, it’ll still be great but maybe not a sell out and not quite the top level we can get to. I think eight worked well last year.
JAMBASE: Talk about selecting the guests. How much of it is bringing back people you know are going to be a good fit – like a Nigel or a John Scofield or George Porter Jr. – versus inviting people you haven’t had before.
EK: Some of it just comes down to who’s available and who’s around. Some people we want there are touring, and we don’t book people like a year in advance or anything so we’re looking at who might be around and who could we fly in for a day or two.
We try to mix it up. Some of the best times are when it’s people we know and have hung out with before but we’ve never played with them before and have always wanted to try it out. We have a couple of those this year. Nicki Bluhm played with us in California, but that’s going to be a really cool night, too.
But then there are people like George, who we know well, and we know how it’s going to be and how much we love playing with them and how much fans like them. People like George bring in a certain vibe and they change the band. When Soulive plays with George Porter Jr., it’s a whole different sound. But there’s no exact way we do it. A lot of it is me reaching out to see if people are available and how we might fit something together.
JAMBASE: Who from previous Bowlives is an example of a person you knew well and had always wanted to play with but hadn’t previously?
EK: Ledisi, who I’ve worked with a bunch. People in our scene may not know her but she’s an unbelievable soul singer. We’d all known her for a while and I produced one of her albums – that just totally made sense.
But I’ll say again, we know a lot of people who make sense for this. Living Colour, we were out with those guys way back, they’re good friends of ours. George is in the stable like I said, every year we’re going to try to get George. And then we build things around that.
Last year, for example, we had Bill Evans and John Medeski and that was absolutely one of my favorite nights. A lot of times during Bowlive we’re playing other people’s material because it just makes sense to do that, but Bill and Medeski actually learned our stuff – we took Soulive songs and re-arranged them and really got out there.
JAMBASE: Those guys in particular are known for just being able to inject themselves in a situation like that. But would you say you’re rehearsing almost every show and learning the guest material more often than not?
EK: It is different every time. There are some guests who are familiar with our music or have the ability to learn some of it ahead. But we also look at people and decide to learn a few of their songs and maybe do a quick rehearsal with them before the show.
I will say that the guests who come back we get to do a little more with, and make it a little different every time. I mean, George, we’ve got a little catalog with George now. Although, he just called me and he was like, I don’t want to do any of the stuff we did last year! [laughs] But I dig that about him. He wants to give people a good show, he doesn’t want people to see the same thing they saw last year. With him, it’s a lot of spontaneous stuff anyway. We’ll plan some things but then he’ll get up with us and half of it will be decided right there.
JAMBASE: Another guest announcement that caught my eye is this joint set with the London Souls. You guys obviously wouldn’t do that with just any band, and I know you’re tight with them, but why did this one make sense?
EK: We know them, as you said, and I also made a solo record where those guys are pretty much the backing band. We hang out all the time. I produced their record, and it’s just one of those things where they’re young dudes but they’re on the same page as us. There are things we can do together that just work.
They did New Year’s with us in Boston and that’s when we first tried that: they did a set, we did a set then we all came together for London Soulive. All of us are up there, and it was more or less random covers we put together but we also did some original things and really mixed it up. Al [Evans] played some guitar, and Chris their drummer plays all these instruments and we just got up and did it.
JAMBASE: Who’s on your Bowlive guest wishlist that you haven’t been able to get yet?
EK: Gary Clark would be cool. I’ve talked to him about it a few times and it’s always been a timing thing. And I’d love to get D’Angelo one day.
JAMBASE: Questlove can’t hook that up for you?
EK: Ha, I guess not. D’Angelo doesn’t come out that much, but we’ll try. And George Benson is another one. I’d love to do some George Benson stuff with him, but that’s another timing issue.
JAMBASE: Looking past Bowlive, what’s next for Soulive?
EK: Next for Soulive is a new record, maybe this spring or early summer and then a late summer, early fall tour planned with some festival dates. We want to get the record done and keep out there. We’re also going to keep doing the Bowlive thing and probably try to take that concept to some other cities, especially as the Brooklyn Bowl thing grows into different markets. But the next phase is a new record, and I’m also keeping up with Lettuce and I have a solo album on the way.
JAMBASE: You have all these commitments but you do seem to leave time for pickup collaborations, too, like the recent Stirrers performances with Joe Russo and Neal Evans. How do you decide what to make time for?
EK: Generally, in a case like that, it’s we’re all available and an offer has come in, so yeah let’s do it. That one we want to do again. We want to record that project and maybe add another member to it. Joe and Neal and I had such a blast doing that. It will definitely happen again.
JAMBASE: And the plan is to keep Lettuce active, too?
EK: Absolutely. It’s been cool to see the growth out there, especially on this tour. People are now coming out to see Lettuce in all these secondary markets, and I mean weeknights with really good crowds. We have to keep supporting this band right now and keep this going.
EK: The lineup on record is more or less the London Souls guys and live I think it’s going to be Eric Kalb on drums and Ron Johnson on bass. Alecia Chakour has been touring and playing with me, too, and I’m finally going to get some more material done. Once the album’s out, I’ll tour some behind it. It’s a lot more rock ‘n’ roll, I think, and has a very psychedelic blues element to it that’s still soulful and funky. It’s got more of a songwriting thing with some very cool sounds, a lot of analog. I’m singing a lot on it.
JAMBASE: When does that drop?
EK: I don’t have a date yet, but it’s almost done. I did the bulk of the recording maybe a year ago. I’ve just had to find time to finish it. I’m building a new studio in Greenpoint that I’m hoping to use to finish a couple of things.
JAMBASE: You have a lot going on always but do keep making time for things that matter. For example, playing bass with Susan and Derek for a stretch last year with the Tedeschi Trucks Band. If I recall, bass was your original instrument – how went that tour?
EK: That was a real natural kind of thing. I’ve known them for a long time and collaborated with them a lot, and played bass on some of the recordings. They called me up and they were like, Kraz we need to make some decisions and why don’t you come play bass for a bit?
I had a lot of open time that summer, though I did miss a couple of Lettuce shows. They’re just amazing people. It was a blast. And it was a challenge to play bass in a band like that – I’ve been playing primarily guitar for so long, and playing with them really got me back in shape on bass. I had to work pretty hard, I will tell you.
JAMBASE: Was the idea that you’d fully take on the Tedeschi Trucks Band bass slot ever on the table?
EK: We did talk about it. But once we got into how much they tour…well, it would be too hard for me to do all of that. At the end of the day, Derek and I were like, we had so much fun doing this but they wanted someone who could commit to the band. Derek was like, “I want someone that’s going to be in the band for the next 10 years,” you know? As much as I would love to do that, I have so many things that are going to need tending to and that I can’t quite leave.
But everything fell into place the way it needed to. What happened was they really loved playing with Tim LeFebvre. He clicked with them and really played his ass off, and I didn’t want to miss any more Lettuce gigs so it all just kind of worked out.
JAMBASE: I also wanted to ask you about playing with Phil Lesh, both in Central Park with Russo and a few days later as a guest of the Terrapin Family Band at Brooklyn Bowl. Can you describe that experience?
EK: It was amazing. I had never really met him. Soulive opened a few things for him a long time ago but we never had much interaction. So when we played in [Central Park] I was really meeting him right there, and then he invited me to go down to the Brooklyn Bowl show. I grew up listening to that music so playing with Phil was huge, as was playing with his kids, who are great musicians. The band was really fun.
JAMBASE: So you have some history with Dead music?
EK: Yeah. My brother was a Deadhead when I was a kid and when I was young I was exposed to that music a lot. My first Dead show was in ’87, I think, and I saw them in ’89 and a bunch after that. I was into stuff like Stevie Wonder and Jimi Hendrix heavily, too, but I definitely had Dead in there.
JAMBASE: Will you play with Phil again?
EK: I hope so. I haven’t heard anything specific, but he definitely mentioned wanting to play again. I am all for it.
JAMBASE: Anything else you’re working on that we haven’t talked about yet?
EK: I have a radio show, Feel Radio, on Jam ON. I’m going to hopefully keep that going, I play a lot of my favorite music and have people on for interviews. That’s going on.
JAMBASE: So I don’t let folks escape this column without telling me a favorite sit-in story from the past year – either you with someone else or someone with one of your bands. Can you share?
EK: Well I think I’ll highlight again playing with Phil. That was definitely cool for me – playing tunes like “Sugar Magnolia” with that band. It was like this full-circle thing for me and I haven’t ever really learned just all the intricate stuff going on in that music. There’s a lot going on there, from the song structure on. It was a really cool, unique experience.
JAMBASE: You seemed a little tentative at first during the show but you really opened up in places like “Playin’” and the segue from “Sugar Magnolia” into “Cassidy.”
EK: They told me a list of three or four songs that I might be playing on and it ended up being others, and also one of the songs I sat in on I hadn’t even heard before. So I think that was just not knowing the material and trying to fit in where I could. That’s how it is whenever you sit in with people, it’s like, I am supposed to get back to the song quickly or am I supposed to take a 10-minute solo? And you know, I think Phil seems to want you to stretch.
You don’t have to look hard for Eric Krasno gems – there’s a new one every week. But here are six recent Kraz appearances well worth your listening space.
Soulive at Mountain Jam, Hunter, NY, 6/8/2013
A typically raging Soulive set that focuses on band staples like “Cannonball,” “Hat Trick” and “El Ron” – abetted by the Shady Horns – before Bill Evans gets into the mix on “Spark” and Mountain Jam host Warren Haynes climbs aboard for “Manic Depression.” It’s always a gas to hear Krasno and Warren spar – Kraz leans a little more greasy rock, Warren a bit more jazz-funk.
Eric Krasno, Joe Russo and Neal Evans, Brooklyn Bowl, Brooklyn, NY, 11/9/2013
An ad hoc trio that would reprise itself two months later at the same venue during the Freaks Ball as Stirrers, this was an example of the totally kickass, pickup, near-spontaneous “go for it” type of stuff you wish you could still get often from New York-area jam scene musicians.
Terrapin Family Band, Brooklyn Bowl, Brooklyn, NY, 11/14/2013
Phil Lesh posted up at the Bowl with the Terrapin Family Band, and the surprise of the long set was Krasno, who’d jammed with Phil and Joe Russo in Central Park a few days earlier, and here showed a comfortable feel for Dead-style improv, including a delectable “Sugar Magnolia > Cassidy” progression.
Lettuce, Bear Creek Music Festival, Live Oak, FL, 11/17/2013
Since becoming a regularly performing group again, Lettuce is one of those collectives that seems to get nastier, funkier and tastier every tour. This Bear Creek set had its share of surprises, including Nikki Glaspie and Igmar Thomas in for Adam Deitch and Eric Bloom, and sit-ins from Alecia Chakour, Mike Dillon and Nigel Hall. But it’s a monster showcase for Krasno, too – this is a band where he so often blazes.
Soulive with The London Souls, Paradise Rock Club, Boston, MA, 12/31/2013
Soulive – and Krasno in particular –played a big part in the rise of The London Souls and it’s no surprise the two bands are so simpatico when sharing the stage. Listen to this New Year’s throwdown – weapons-grade Krasno all over it — and get a taste of what might happen during the “London Soulive” set slated for this year’s Bowlive run.
Eric Krasno Band, Jam Cruise, 1/5/2014
Say this for Krasno: he knows how to put a hot band together. This Jam Cruise set put him at the center of a seven-piece lineup that included Alecia Chakour, Alex Chakour, Eric Kalb, Peter Levin, Nigel Hall and James Casey, with Kofi Burbridge jumping in near the end. A preview of coming attractions for Krasno’s solo band effort?