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Grant Sabin & The Juke Joint Highballs bring home the blues

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Local bluesman Grant Sabin is going out on the road with Joe Johnson to tour their Juke Joint Highballs debut album. - GEORGE L. BLOSSER
  • George L. Blosser
  • Local bluesman Grant Sabin is going out on the road with Joe Johnson to tour their Juke Joint Highballs debut album.
Grant Sabin & The Juke Joint Highballs’ new Bourbon & Milk album may not be completely perfect note-for-note, and that doesn’t bother Sabin and co-conspirator Joe Johnson one bit.

“What you hear on the album is Grant and us in the moment,” says Johnson of what the two musicians describe as “mood music,” a loud, raw and honest interpretation of the Mississippi juke-joint blues they hold dear. “There’s some hiccups along the way, but those things just add more flavor to something that really feels like you’re in the room with the band.”

Sabin agrees. “In the past, I’ve gone into the studio with certain songs that I’ve tried to make into a ‘song for the album,’” he says, “But what I’ve always done when I play shows is just to play the blues, [to] juke as hard as I can and make people smile and dance and feel emotion. So this band has been a really, really awesome group of people and an environment to do that.

The band recorded the album this January at Hideaway Studios in Sedalia, Colorado, with producer Marc Benning. Most of it was recorded live in one take to capture the group’s live intensity, though Johnson explains that he recorded one overdub — of guitar feedback.

“It was really cold,” says Sabin of the winter sessions. “We just showed up with all our gear, a bottle of liquor, and a bunch of beer and just did our thing like we do live.”

The trio, which features Sabin on lead guitar and vocals, Johnson (a local musical luminary in his own right) on rhythm guitar, and Kevin Ott on drums, has just set out on a late-summer tour that includes stops in Amarillo, Santa Fe and Taos. After that, they’ll return to Colorado for shows at Salida’s SteamPlant Theater with The Changing Colors on Aug. 11, Fort Collins’ Equinox Brewing on Aug. 12, and Pueblo’s Songbird Cellars on Aug. 13.

Touring is nothing new for Sabin and Johnson, and, in fact, that was the impetus for forming the project. While the duo hit the road previously as a double-solo act in New Mexico and Mississippi, they soon found themselves playing on each other’s songs and improvising on traditional hill-country blues material, all of which inspired them to start a band in that vein.

“After watching Grant for two weeks straight, I thought what he really just needs is a rhythm guitarist to play off of,” explains Johnson. “He was already a lead guitar player, a lead harp player and a frontman, but he could do a lot more with someone playing rhythm underneath what he’s doing. It ended up becoming an opportunity for me to play electric guitar and express myself differently through guitar, which has been a lot of fun. But my first thing is and always has been to just highlight what Grant’s already doing.”

With the addition of the Denver-based Ott, whom Johnson and Sabin describe as “the best blues drummer out there,” Sabin’s songs have found a new, electrified outlet, one that the bandleader feels was captured perfectly on Bourbon & Milk.

“I think what’s keeping the blues alive is that the people who are keeping it alive are good people,” says Sabin. “The reason they do what they’re doing is not necessarily to improve on the blues, but to breathe life into this great thing they experienced growing up.”

Johnson, who feels he can be more “objective” when listening to the Juke Joint Highballs than to his own solo material, has nothing but praise for Sabin as a bandmate. The former Mississippi native recalls how the first blues player whose music made him “feel at home” in Colorado Springs was the late John-Alex Mason. He holds Sabin in the same regard, as both an artist and a representative of modern blues music.

“This guy does it real,” says Johnson, “all the way down to his bones.”

Send news, photos and music to reverb@csindy.com

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