Ryan Zoidis could be the Kevin Bacon of the Maine music scene.

You know, that game where you try to see how few actors you can name before getting to someone who worked with Bacon? You can do the same thing with Zoidis, and it doesn’t take long to find links between him and other Maine-based musicians doing big things in their careers.

Zoidis, who lives in South Portland, went to the Berklee College of Music in Boston in the mid ’90s and met fellow student Eric Krasno, a Florida native. The two helped form a funk band called Lettuce. A few years later, Zoidis and Krasno became friendly with the Portland band Rustic Overtones. Zoidis played with Rustic for a time, and Krasno later started writing songs with Rustic frontman Dave Gutter. A couple years ago, Krasno used some connections of his own to help Gutter land a job writing songs for the latest album by legendary New Orleans singer Aaron Neville. The album, “Apache,” came out in July.

From playing around Portland, Zoidis and Krasno both knew Lyle Divinsky, a Portland singer who moved to New York a few years ago. Divinsky played around New York and eventually got recommended for the job of lead singer for The Motet, a Colorado-based funk band that began in the late ’90s. Krasno, who had produced an album for The Motet, gave Divinsky a glowing recommendation. Divinsky got the job early this year, and by mid-summer he was singing before 10,000 people at the Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Colorado.

The connections between Zoidis, Divinsky and Gutter help illustrate how Maine musicians making careers for themselves outside of the state often lend a helping hand to each other, make an introduction, or just lend moral support. It’s an example, the musicians say, of how strong and vibrant the Maine music scene is, specifically in Portland.

“I think it’s all about perspective and approach,” said Divinsky, 31. “I’ve never met anyone in (the Portland scene) who is competitive in a negative way. We’re not playing just because it’s fun and we’re looking for a party. We all care deeply and want to share that feeling. I think there’s a special energy in Portland.”

Guitarist Adam Agati, 33 and from Cape Elizabeth, says he also was helped by connections with other Maine artists. Agati started playing gigs in Portland clubs and bars when he was still a teenager. He was living in New York around the same time as Divinsky, and says playing and recording with Divinsky helped him. Agati had been a guitarist in jazz bands and played in Nashville for a while before coming to New York. He said he wanted to branch out from jazz and play rock, soul and other kinds of music, but he didn’t know a lot of people in New York who weren’t jazz musicians.

Mutual Maine friends led him to Divinsky. Agati said playing with Divinksy helped him meet other musicians in New York, and find other opportunities. Agati is now composing film music in Los Angeles and preparing for a European tour with a band called Cory Henry and the Funk Apostles.

“We have talent in this market that can compete with anyone, but we still live in Maine, so to do bigger things you need to catch a break,” said Ken Bell, who runs the Portland House of Music and formerly ran The Big Easy, a club on Market Street. “It happens a lot where (musicians) from Maine put the word in someone’s ear, do something to help each other along. It’s great to see so many of them spreading the love.”

FRIENDS FIRST

Zoidis, 41, lives in South Portland when he’s not on tour with Lettuce or other artists. He’s also played with an impressive list of pop music stars, including Stevie Wonder, Chaka Khan and Bob Weir. Though he went to college in Boston, Zoidis played in the Portland scene and kept in touch with other young musicians. He had gone to high school in Portland with Jon Roods, who in the mid-1990s helped form the core one of Portland’s best-known and most successful rock bands, Rustic Overtones. Gutter was the band’s lead singer.

Rustic Overtones played shows in the 1990s with various bands Zoidis was in, and at some point Zoidis’ Portland friends invited him to join Rustic. The band had a big following locally and got signed to a recording deal by Arista in 1999. But because of internal changes at the label, the band never released an album with Arista. A few years later the band released an album with the smaller Tommy Boy label, but never gained major national success. Zoidis left the band around the time it was signed to Tommy Boy.

But Zoidis and his bandmates in Lettuce kept in touch with the Rustic Overtones members. And the connections continue to pay off.

“The Portland scene is what it is because it’s a place where you can work on your craft and not have to kill yourself working a day job, though it is getting more expensive than it used to be,” said Zoidis. “It just seems to be conducive to creative people.”

Lettuce will be touring throughout the rest of this year, in major cities, drawing audiences in the thousands at some venues. The band is scheduled to play Portland’s State Theatre Dec. 30. In the spring, it will tour Japan. Members of Lettuce are hoping to start a series of funk-focused festivals in different cities, Zoidis said.

SINGING FOR AARON NEVILLE

Gutter, 41, still sings with Rustic Overtones. But he has spent much of his career writing songs for other artists – Susan Tedeschi, Derek Trucks, Res, Gramatik, Carlos Santana and Eric Clapton among them – and he has worked for several years with Krasno as his partner.

Krasno had played over the years and become friendly with Ivan Neville, Aaron Neville’s son. That connection helped get Krasno and Gutter get an audition with the elder Neville.

Neville, who was in Maine recently for two concerts, said he liked Gutter’s ideas right away. He especially liked the fact that Gutter wanted to take his poetry, which he’s been writing for years, and make some into songs.

“They both did a real good job. I really liked the way (Gutter) put the things,” said Neville.

Gutter looked over hundreds of Neville’s poems to find those that could become lyrics. The poems were about Neville’s life and his view of the world. The song “Stompin’ Ground” was written from a poem about growing up in New Orleans. Gutter said when he read the poem he could hear the horns and New Orleans-style percussion that eventually became part of the song.

When Gutter would come up with a tune or a lyric, he’d have to sing a little bit of it as a demo to Neville, kind of like taking batting practice in front of David Ortiz.

At one point while recording at a studio in Vermont, Gutter and Neville were stuck for a line in the song “Heaven,” which is about being forgiven at the gates of heaven. Gutter’s daughter Kani, who was 8, came into the room and asked what the grownups were puzzling over. They told her and the little girl said, “Why don’t you just say ‘Heaven, I hope I meet you there.'” So they put that line in the song.

“He has put such a stamp on music over the years, so it was cool that he was so open to everyone’s ideas,” Gutter said.


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