On Wednesday nights in Colorado Springs, at a Cajun blues joint called Oscar’s, two hot young guns surround themselves with incredibly gifted backup musicians.
Jake Loggins, 30, and Austin Johnson, 20, are confidently and assertively taking The Springs by storm. And they’re not cocky about it. Interviewing them over a New Castle and Seven-up (Austin’s age preventing him from imbibing in local venues) they came across as funny but friendly, down to earth and at the same time humbled by the notoriety.
Loggins says he had to make it as a musician. “After doing a lot of shows I realized I had a baby on the way, a great wife and a daughter and I had to do something. I tried working on a drilling crew for a utilities company for a couple years, got laid off, and came back to music. I started believing attitude is gratitude."
Loggins, Johnson and their fellow musicians have a couple things in common: humor and professionalism.
For Loggins, storytelling, and the blues, impacted his original recordings. He says he’s a one trick pony… he likes the blues, he likes it loud, intense, soulful. Loggins has been playing for twenty years. His career really took off ten years ago. Earlier years were tough. He moved to Colorado Springs from Texas in the Nineties and shared a futon with his Dad in his Aunt’s basement. He had no friends and was in a school district where kids were driving Range Rovers and BMWs.
“I didn’t fit in so I followed my Dad to jam sessions and watched him play guitar. He played for forty years. I carried equipment for him and his band members. I learned to play and once in a while they’d let me sit in and play a few tunes."
For the record, his Dad’s name is Lobo Loggins, not Kenny. If you try to compliment him he will say, “What are you talkin’ about, it came out of boredom.” His Aunt would get mad at him for whining about having no friends. So he would practice the guitar until his fingers bled.
Then one night he got paid to play. “It was over after that,” he said. “You mean I can get paid fifty bucks to get on stage and completely obliterate timeless pieces of art?”
When Paul Zuhon celebrated his 11th anniversary as owner of Oscar’s there was no question which performers he was going to book. “Jake is the best in town, and Austin has been playing here since he was about ten,” Paul told me.
“We’ve been fortunate enough that people know we play in town a lot,” said Loggins, “and our musicians know we always pay them. If you have a good reputation people will play with you.”
The icing on the cake for their backup musicians is that the duo has a structure without a structure.
“We don’t rehearse. We go about our business. We have fun and we improvise. We work a lot and make it fun,” said Loggins.
There's is a very respectful relationship and the ten year age difference is not a factor. When asked, both were quick to claim the other was the best guitarist.
“It’s a blessing to have such a great pool of musicians in this town,” said Austin. “We lean on them to have fun and jam. We have a good reputation of getting a lot of work and being paid. We give love to our crew as much as possible. The quality of all of them is top notch.”
One of Austin's philosophies is, “The free form of having anyone in your band is better than having one band.”
Loggins calls the various formations “projects” – different forms of several bands, one of which is called Justus League - started by Austin. On any given night it can feature harmonica, keyboards, horns, drums, guest singers, bass and drum players. But it is the hard driving guitar works of Johnson's Les Paul Special and Loggins' Fender Stratocaster that are fundamental to their success. Both can sing, by the way.
Austin’s mother and father were musicians. He tried doing other things but life always came back to playing music, and playing music “made sense” to him.
“What I could release to the public through music I could not release to the public in high school sports for instance,” Austin said. “It was in our blood.”
“It’s expressive, it’s emotive, sensitive” Jake interrupts. Austin, a graduate of Colorado Springs Palmer High, laughs at that Zen and adds, “We have sensitive eyes.” At that point they both chuckled at what must have been an inside joke.
Humor is a big part of the show. Occasionally, when Jake introduces the band members he stops on Austin and says, “Austin wrote Foxy Lady and Layla by the way.” And if Austin takes too long to tune up his Les Paul Special, he teases Austin about having a problematic guitar.
The two guitarists manage the Wednesday evening blues jam at Oscar’s, a rugged wooden back patio, with warm summer breezes blowing through, behind a more modern front end serving gumbo and shrimp poor boys. They play old tunes like Ain’t Gonna Be Your Monkey Man No More, a song or two by Willie Dixon. And Austin’s fine combination of guitar and vocals shows up stunningly in One Way Out by the Allman Brothers and Roll Away the Dew by the Grateful Dead. Of course when a song like Roll Away ends, it’s back to humor by Jake. “That was a song! It had words in it and stuff.”
They both play their own interpretations of Jimmy Hendrix music, such as Watchtower, and it borders on a reggae-blues fusion.
“Wow, Hendrix is like- “Austin begins. “Non-generational,” Jake finishes. “Everybody loves him.”
“He’s an airport that everybody has to go through,” adds Austin.
“Yeah, that’s right,” said Jake, finishing a helping of French fries and a bite of burger on Oscar’s patio. “Whether it’s Red House (a slow twelve bar blues tune) or Purple Haze, people love it,” said Jake. If we’re going to do covers it is not going to be Molly Hatchet.” (Colorado Springs has a big classic rock following and many local clubs feature old rock cover bands).
“We get to interpret and that’s what is cool about the blues, and Hendrix - the interpretation. It’s not about going lick for lick and beat for beat. It’s emoting, we’re expressive individuals.”
Ironically, outside of their performances, both are introverts. But as Jake says, once you get the taste of doing it and being paid for it, you never want to work. They joke about getting up at 2 p.m. after playing until 2 a.m. but are also wise about not getting in trouble during the idle time.
I didn’t ask how much they make but they equated it with machinist or union carpenters. Jake has promised his wife a new house in The Springs northeast neighborhood and he has put away enough for a down payment.
Austin seems like more of a raw talent and when I asked if Jake was watching him grow up, mature and get better, Jake went for the wit, “I’ve never seen any improvement.” Austin broke into a belly laugh.
“No, Austin is grounded. He grew up in a musical house. He’s definitely grown. He was comin’ at me at age 13. He had an incredible teacher that solidified his theoretical knowledge. I don’t know ten percent of what Austin actually knows about music.”
“Jeremy Vasquez and Jake were major influences when I started coming out to clubs. I would watch them until they packed up their gear. Sometimes they wouldn’t talk to me.”
“I was never like that!” Jake joked back.
“My Dad, Ted Johnson, played with Kenny Dale in the eighties, and opened for countless southern rock acts during the highlights of his career,” confided Austin.
When asked about his future, Austin said, “I can’t predict my future but I’m going to keep doing what I love doing, surround myself with the best quality musicians I can and be thankful every day that I can do that,” said Austin. “A lot of people don’t have the privilege to do what they want to do.”
Not to miss out on a joke, Jake reminded us that women who come to the shows happen to find Austin an attractive young man. His hot little girlfriend is off in the corner during the interview; tanned, Daisy Dukes, munching on nachos, texting.
When my questions got too erudite, Jake said, “I’m gonna go deep with you, Bill. Everyday fighting a war of attrition and always striving to attain personal peace, in my home, with my family, preparing for my children’s future. It’s tricky business though, I’m beyond trying to shape the dream. It’s not how good you are or how well you have honed your craft. It’s about shtick sometimes, how well you can sell yourself. So, it’s not about chasing the music dream; if the right opportunity came a long so I could work and provide for my family I might go after that. But I’m not out there actively chasing after it. I’m content.”
Jake does have bio-medical training to fall back on. But he said the two of them are at a level of success that 90-percent of musicians are never at, and they’re making a living doing it.
“I’ve set myself up for playing music in Colorado Springs for life. We don’t have to go on the road. We do 300 shows a year, ten minutes from our homes.”
Austin has posted recordings on Pandora, Amazon and Spotify, including another band he plays for – the Robby Wicks Band.
“That’s an alternative rock band,” Austin said.
“But in that band he’s just a pretty face,” said Jake.
“Yeah,” Austin said, laughing, “I really don’t do anything.”
“My album on iTunes is called Have a Nice Day," said Jake. "It’s all about when everything is all messed up and you have no choice and things are out of your control, but you do have a choice – it’s your attitude. Don’t focus on the crap. Your only choice is what attitude you’re gonna have. I think it was Genghis Khan who said they can take everything from you but they can’t take away how you choose to react. I read that in a book.” And when he added, “The only book I ever read,” Austin started chuckling.
Documentary filmmaker Scott Johncock is producing a film about Sammy and the Sarcastics - a 1980s side band of Flash Cadillac's, the world renowned rock and roll band that began in the Sixties and calls Colorado Springs home. He helped me interview Jake and Austin on video and posted it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y7NW8zs1jmo&feature=youtu.be
Loggins has been pillorying the song “Business Time,” by the New Zealand acoustic guitar duo “Flight of the Conchords,” for years, often adding several musicians and making it into a blues/R&B fusion that’s all about a clumsy man’s attempt at love making.
“When I play Business Time I have my eyes closed. It’s a very deeply personal song to me," he says with tongue and fries in cheek. "You have to play something the crowd is gonna jive to. It has a funny message. It has a great groove to it. We have an opportunity to showcase our musicians in it, let them take care of their business so to speak.”
Scott Johncock caught Loggins playing Business Time in front of Stan Musial memorabilia, at Benny’s - a righteous blues bar on Colorado Avenue, and posted this to YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rluigYF1i3w&feature=youtu.be
In addition to Flash Cadillac tearing up Colorado Springs as senior citizens, John Lee Hooker’s base player and the drummer from Iron Butterfly came to The Springs to retire (both of whom played with Lobo Loggins). And ironically, the Air Force band has turned out great musicians as well.
Austin’s inspiration comes partly from Derek Trucks and Eric Krasno. The two young guns also claim inspiration from local musicians, some of whom they have hired to play gigs: James Dikes, Dean Woodward, Bill St. John, John Wise, Dale Creel, the late Fingers Farrell, Michael Reese, Magic Dave, Scott Harrison and Dan Todd. And Jake apologized if they missed anybody.
Justus League features Matt Taylor on the keyboards as well as Nick Hereau and Sean Pyrtle.
“Surrounding yourself with quality band members is a knockout punch,” according to Loggins. “It’s like a perfect golf shot. Like when you hit the ball perfectly and you don’t even feel it, or you punch a fighter and he falls down. When everybody is hittin’ on all cylinders.” And as Loggins says at the end of each set, “We’ll be back after a short break… about 45 minutes.”
Scott Johncock can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org