Buffalo’s music scene is as elusive as it is illustrious, at least to me. It’s a goldmine, walking into any bar on a warm summer’s night and watching a local band perform. You can expect great music. And that’s exactly what I did when I strolled into Tudor Lounge to watch local blues band Freightrain play recently. However, what I didn’t expect was to witness the best guitar solo I have ever seen live. Strumming a Gibson SG, with her eyes closed and a slight nonchalance, was guitarist Grace Lougen.
The 23-year-old guitarist originally from Kenmore, who, in the last 10 years, has toured internationally, released her debut album, and played with some of music’s most prestigious artists, keeps a surprisingly low profile. My recent sit-down with Grace only cemented how interesting of an artist and a person she is. Despite her extensive resume and impeccable talent, her humble demeanor is something refreshing, and that’s likely what makes her one of Buffalo’s best-kept secrets.
Coming from a musically-inclined family, Grace started taking guitar lessons at 14 years old. Her father, a guitarist himself, harbored much of Grace’s taste in rock music. As her interest in blues peaked, it didn’t take long before she began performing live. Originally playing with a blues cover band led by her guitar teacher, Grace’s skills got attention from Grace Stumberg.
Stumberg, a popular local pop-folk artist, invited Grace to join her band, which soon included an exclusive opportunity for her to go on tour with legendary singer-songwriter Joan Baez. With Grace Stumberg as a back-up vocalist, and Grace Lougen as a guitar tech abroad with Baez, the two Graces’ created their own run of shows on their off-days as a duo in Europe.
“We traveled a lot together and worked to book shows on our days off, which was really cool,” Grace said. “We played in Norway, Germany, and France, all of these different places that we never thought we’d get to play…so we made it happen.”
Grace’s participation in Stumberg’s band led to many connections back in Buffalo. Playing with other local bands helped her in forming joint efforts with other musicians. Relationships with well-known instrumentalists like crafty bassist Michael Petrino and funky drummer Carl “Flute” Johnson helped Grace release her own album in 2012.
“The Grace Blues Project,” consisting of 10 tracks and a healthy, diverse set of music styles, gives a buffet of what Grace can do. Despite the exquisitely-executed sounds of folk, blues, and rock, the guitarist’s X factor stands at the helm of her collaborations with local and national artists alike.
“I met more people through music and playing out…I always feel like [musicians] need to be collaborating more,” she said.
Recognizing the power of combined talent, Grace’s participation in the local music scene didn’t stop at the sight of longer projects. While still involved with her blues cover band, and also playing lead for a short-lived project called “Grace and the Leftover Pancakes,” Grace’s jam sessions with Stumberg’s resident drummer, Josh English, formed a rock-oriented passion project between them, soon to be known as Grosh.
“One day I was just like, ‘Josh, I wanna do like a rock show.’ We just wanted to rock out and just have fun. Somebody called me for a gig and asked for the Leftover Pancakes and I said, ‘Well, no. But I’m doing a duo with Josh English. Ya know? And it’s really good, it’s like raw, funky rock n’ roll kinda stuff.’ And then so they hired me, and then I called Josh and was like, ‘Hey do you wanna do a duo?’ I totally just sold it. I’m like, ‘It’s mostly original, some covers.’ I hadn’t written anything. But it was fun. We just got together and we wrote like 14, 15 songs…just to do the one show.”
With a raw, hard-rock style and modern sensibility, Grosh shows promise and emits a starkly different sound than Grace’s typical, bluesy approach. Grace shared how she piloted a whole quartet for Grosh for a recent performance:
“We added my friend Dylan Hund on bass and Megan Brown…she’s a really good singer. We’re adding her to see what it’s like as a full scale rock band instead of just a two-piece, so that should be really fun.”
“Really fun” sounds a bit modest when considering that Grace has not yet failed to deliver great music and produce quality, collaborative projects. Besides performing with some of rock and blues’s most talented musicians like Will McFarlane, Albert Cummings, and the late, great multi-instrumentalist Leon Russell, Grace’s greatest contribution (locally) has been to Freightrain. Lead by legendary bassist, Robert “Freightrain” Parker — who, a few years back was the first Native American musician to be inducted into the Buffalo Music Hall of Fame — the band as a whole presents a culturally diverse image as a soul, blues, and roots collective.
Assisting Parker with his lead vocals and bass is Grace on lead guitar, Damone Jackson on drums, and Greg Leech on keys. With every member fluent and respected in their craft, Freightrain entertains with an interesting disposition, especially when considering that Grace is playing with much older men from entirely different backgrounds.
“I kind of always knew all of them just through you know, friends and stuff,” Grace said, recalling how she initially joined Freightrain.“Robert was doing a regular ‘Freightrain and Friends’ show every Friday at Tudor Lounge and had different players come. He knew that I played guitar and was trying all these different players all the time, so he asked me to sit in and I did. I kept sitting in more, and that’s when I played with Greg and Damone. Freightrain started liking the chemistry between the four of us, so he started just keeping it between us…and it evolved into the band.”
As talented as Grace Lougen is, her dedication to attending local shows seems to be the common denominator in all of her many successful relationships. Sitting in with her guitar teacher for the Black & Blues cover band, hanging around influential musicians during her late teens, and joining in with Freightrain’s weekly jam sessions seem like lucky opportunities, but it’s the opposite. It’s respectable and encouraging to see how Grace has benefited through sheer consistency. Her love and collaborative nature for music shows in every sit-in, just as much as every solo she’s done.
“I think the best way to even just to learn how to play is just to do it. Play with people who are better and more experienced. You’ll learn a lot faster…It’s just like life, ya know? You need people to mentor you. It’s like that,” she said.
As an official member of Freightrain for the last three years, Grace’s affiliation with the band has moved her great strides as an artist. In the last few years the band has been extremely active, releasing two albums and touring in Norway. “Outside Ourselves,” the single off of their most recent studio album released last May, was highlighted and compiled on an album benefiting the homeless veterans of WNY. And, most recently, Freightrain took home the Best Blues album at the 2018 Indigenous Music Awards.
Part of Freightrain’s success undeniably comes from both Grace’s songwriting and melody-making. Bringing ideas to the band and having the outlet to experiment with different sounds has strengthened Grace’s music creations, but she stresses that it’s all about collaboration.
“With songwriting, it’s almost like a separate art, too…It’s really been fun writing with my band Freightrain, because I’ll have an idea of how I want it, but then I can bring it to them and they put their ideas into the arrangement. And so it goes a different place then I would expect, which is a good thing.”
This is likely why Grace can play almost anything. Applying the skills and experience from other artists keeps her pushing and staying motivated. And she sees the usefulness in every sound.
“I just love keeping it fresh for myself. I like trying to do everything that I can do; every genre. I think that every musician should try to be versatile…It’s all the same thing, ya know?”
Playing shows with her band(s) and making music any time she can is what Grace is all about. And this young, gifted guitarist isn’t stopping anytime soon. While she can usually be found in any given bar downtown picking away at a killer solo or blasting a funky tune through her Fender Deluxe, Grace is currently in Europe on tour with Joan Baez until mid-August.