Throw a rock anywhere in Orange County and chances are you'll hit a musician. But musicians who double as captains of ocean-traveling vessels are a bit harder to find. One is John Kraus, a founding member of one of the county's best bands of the 1990s, Trip the Spring, as well as front man for Bodie and his latest incarnation, John Kraus and the Goers.
Music came first for Kraus, who unveils his latest CD Friday, Derelict, at Big's in Fullerton. But a junior high field trip to the tall ship The Pilgrim in Dana Point stuck with him for years. In 1995, while Trip the Spring was at its peak, he began volunteering for the kid's program on the Pilgrim and basically "got bit by the tall ship bug." He has since studied to gain his master's captain license, which allows him to skipper vessels up to 100 tons.
And the experience has filtered into his music. After learning traditional sea shanties while hosting sails aboard the Pilgrim, he began incorporating them into his performances. But he was drawn to the darker, more ambiguous ones and, over time, he began merging them with his love of Irish and Celtic textures infused with bluegrass.
"I'd like to think I'm reinventing the sea shanty," Kraus said. "I don't think purists would appreciate it, since I use electric guitar and I'm not up there just strumming over and over."
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As a nautitician (is that even a word???)--he currently works for the Los Angeles Maritime Institute on excursions to the Channel Islands for under-privileged inner-city kids--Kraus is both enraptured and realistic about life on the high seas. "Most people think being on a ship is all about beautiful sunsets, dolphins off the bow, phosphorence in the water, but even after nine days at sea, you're tired, soaking wet, seasick, your hands hurt and all you want is to be home," he says. "I think that's why I lean toward more ambiguous sounding shanties, since they lend themselves to more textures and layers."
On his current album, which includes five originals, four traditionals and one from San Francisco-based musician Skip Henderson, Kraus, who plays guitar and banjo, is joined by his long-time percussionist David Dutton, his brother-in-law Bob Aul, on tuba, and fiddler and mandolin player Tim Weed, and guitarist Paul Givant, both from the LA-based Rose's Pawn Shop, another ensemble Kraus performs with.
The result, at least on Derelict, is a brooding, darker-hued sound that honors the centuries-old tradition of sea shanties while packaging them in a far more musically diverse sound. And there's more than a hint of dread in some of the songs. As John Cale once sang on Barracuda, in the end, "the ocean will have us all." As someone on intimate terms with a small swath of that ocean, Kraus would seem to agree.