Sabrina Luening has a show at the Base at Alex’s Place at the YMCA on April 5, and she’s beyond excited about it. One reason for her ebullience is that her longtime musical partner, Don Groover, will finally share the stage with her again, after undergoing cancer treatment.
“My Groover is back!” Sabrina says. “I love him … we don’t have to talk. It’s actually quite shocking how many times we’ll be playing and I’ll just turn — we don’t usually have a set list — he’ll say a song, and I literally was [about] to say it. That’s where we are.” Groover is now cancer-free and doing great, she reports, and “eating like a horse.”
Another reason Sabrina’s looking forward to the gig is that she’s very passionate about the venue. The Base, in the basement of the teen center at the Y, is a fully equipped performance space with a stage, professional lighting, seating for 70 people — and a recording studio, Studio 57.
The space has been lying mostly dormant since the death of Tony Lombardi, former director of teen activities at the YMCA. Lombardi spent a lifetime working in music and with teens, and ran the Wintertide Coffeehouse, a performance venue and cafe in Vineyard Haven, which was a much-needed haven for teenagers in the 1990s. “[Tony] did so much, and then sadly, he passed,” says Sabrina. “Now Ryan is there, and Lizzy, who’s amazing, [and they’re] trying to get it back on the scene.”
Liz DiSessa, a music industry veteran and 30-year Island resident, was recruited by teen center director Ryan Schwab-Doyon to help revive the venue, and get it to the point of at least breaking even, so it doesn’t get turned into something else. “It [started] as a project of trying to repair some of the equipment, get some of the stuff back up and running,” says DiSessa, who was brought on for her musical expertise. “It sort of grew into, OK, how do we make this accessible for people?”
DiSessa also runs Amp Jam, a weekly drop-in jam session, and works one-on-one with teens interested in music. “They’re starting to do their hang time with musical instruments instead of computer games,” she says. “Not only are they starting to actively use it, but they’re starting to passively engage in it, and with each other.”
One of those teens is Ella Luening, Sabrina’s 14-year-old daughter, who, like her mother, has quite the voice. Ella, named for jazz legend Ella Fitzgerald, has recently developed an interest in singing, and will perform a tune or two at her mother’s show on April 5. Ella has been working with DiSessa after school, and performed recently at the Charter School’s talent show, backed by a karaoke track. “She’ll actually have live music with her,” Sabrina says of Friday’s show.
It’s unsurprising that Ella is a talented singer; Sabrina comes from an incredibly musical family, and has been performing since the age of 3. “My dad was Vinnie ‘the Bull’ Johnson,” she says. “I didn’t know [him] until I was older. I knew my dad was a drummer, but my dad was a drummer. He played with Miles Davis, [with] the Count Basie Orchestra, he traveled the world with Lena Horne … in the music world, he’s the top of the top.”
Her Uncle Otto was a conductor in New York. Another uncle, Larry, was a drummer. Her brother Erich is a talented local singer-songwriter; their cousin is Lemonheads singer Evan Dando. She recalls one childhood photo of a young Evan with a blond bowl cut, holding a guitar, sitting next to Erich, whom Sabrina describes as looking at that age like Mowgli from “The Jungle Book.” “When we all connected,” she says, “yeah — that was a lot of music.”
The first time she performed with a band was at the request of Adam Natusch during her senior year of high school. “I’ll never forget,” she says, “I wore my crinoline, a black motorcycle jacket that I’d spray-painted an anarchy symbol on, and sang downstairs at the Catholic Church.” They performed Boston’s “More Than a Feeling,” and Led Zeppelin’s “D’yer Maker.”
After high school, Luening moved to New York to live with her dad and study acting with Richard Pinter. She studied for a couple of years, then realized rather suddenly, while sitting at a deli with other actors who only wanted to talk about headshots and auditions, that she was completely bored. “I’m not gonna be an actor,” she recalls thinking.
During that time, she was a roadie for her dad, and had a chance to meet some musical greats, like Ruth Brown and Nell Carter. “I learned a lot from him,” she says of her father. “He was such a professional.”
After returning to the Island from New York several years later, Sabrina was one of the original members of the Boogies, along with Natusch, his brother Fred, and Sally Taylor. She then joined 2nd Power, a hip-hop group featuring Jason “JC” Chapman and Pinto Abrams, and after that, Drawn Butter, with Stu Kimball.
She was approached by Don Groover after Drawn Butter split up, and the two have been playing together ever since, about 13 years. “Groover has taught me a lot,” she says. “He’s just awesome. He’s such a great player, he’s a jazz man.” The two got their start playing as a duo downstairs at Atria. They play frequently at the Ritz, the P.A. Club, and other Island bars, and in the summer they play with the Jelly Roll Horns at the Port Hunter. “It’s really a gift, for me,” Sabrina says of playing with Groover, “so I miss it.”
Although she’s performed at a couple of weddings, Luening says wedding gigs are rare. “I’m not playing bulls___ music,” she says. “It’s not true to me. If I’m doing a wedding, it’s because you know what I do.”
What she does is blow the roof off with her powerful voice, and occasionally bring people to tears. “Her best is [Etta James’] ‘I’d Rather Go Blind,’” says Sabrina’s sister, Talia Luening. “I cry every time she sings that one.” For me personally, it’s “Secret Heart,” a Drawn Butter original, that brings the tears.
“She’s the queen of the Island divas,” says fellow musician Andy Herr. “She’s a performer and a half.” Herr ran sound once for a show at the Port Hunter, and recalls having to turn the mic way down when Sabrina took the stage after several other singers. “She’s gonna blast that s___ if I leave it turned up this high,” he recalls thinking, “the speakers are gonna crackle.”
In spite of her incredible talent and passion, Luening has no desire to be famous. “I love to sing, I love music,” she says. “I love to make people feel what I feel. It’s not about fame in any way. It’s not about any of that for me. It’s literally about your heart.”
Although Sabrina writes music, and performed all original tunes with Drawn Butter, with Groover she mostly does covers. “I love the covers that I do,” she says. “For me, it’s giving respect to the artists I love, so I don’t really do too much rearranging of things.” She’s working on a few new cover tunes to debut at Friday’s show.
Sabrina, who works at the cafe at the Y, says she was honored when she was approached by DiSessa to do a show at the Base. “The sound down there is incredible,” she says. “It’s a musician’s paradise. There’s frickin’ instruments everywhere! It’s so welcoming and safe, and it’s really a healthy venue.”
Luening is frustrated by the lack of good music venues on the Island these days, particularly all-ages venues. “Where are our venues anymore?” she says. “Where’s the music, man?” She says she appreciates Pathways and the Chilmark Potluck Jams, but the fact that they’re so far up-Island is limiting, especially for people who, like many teens, don’t have a car. “Alex’s Place, it’s so centrally located, so perfectly located for the bus, for everything — and there’s no alcohol,” she says. “I love the Ritz, but it doesn’t always have to be about ‘Let’s go to a bar and [listen to] music.’ Why not just music?”
She’s interested in staying involved with Alex’s Place and the Base, and says she could see it as a “go-to” for benefit shows, such as Ladyfest. “What Rose [Guerin] has done with Ladyfest, it’s unbelievable.”
Luening says it would be great “to incorporate maybe a poetry slam [at the Base], music, maybe a soul night — and really get it out there.” As for the poetry slam idea, she’s “100 percent” willing to host the event, if it happens. “I write,” she says, although she’s never slammed. “Most of my stuff that I write, I guess, would be poetry.”
Currently, local bands can host shows at the Base for $150, which covers the cost of staff and necessities, and keep the remainder of the door. The space is also available for practice and recording, and DiSessa says that she’s experimenting with having local musicians pay a flat fee (about $150) for access annually.
Sabrina Luening and Don Groover will play with the Jelly Roll Horns at the Base on Friday, April 5, at 7 pm; doors open at 6:30 pm. $10. Guest performers will include Rose Guerin, Erich Luening, Ella Luening, and possibly more. All ages are welcome, and teens are free.