“I prefer to play in places that aren’t cocktail lounges. People don’t seem to lose their heads,” said long-time local musician and Capitol Hill fixture Randy Bowles. Bowles has lived in this neighborhood most of his life and he’ll be celebrating his 65th birthday on April 8 by playing an all-ages show at one of his favorite haunts, the Black Coffee Co-Op cafe. Fans of classic folk, stripped-down psychedelic rock, and blues should enjoy Bowles’s cheery approach to the six-string.
“They were having hootenannies in Yakima in the summers of around 1966 and 1967; I just ate it up,” Bowles told The Capitol Hill Times when asked about how he got his start in music. Raised in Yakima, he and his friends spent the hot months diving into the florid fare of the hippie era, eventually picking up instruments themselves to form The Velvet Illusions in 1966. Over the band’s two main years of work, its lineup included Bowles (going by the management-forced moniker “Jimmy James”) on guitar and vocals, with Chuck Funk, Jon Juette, Bruce Kitt, Dale Larrison, George Radford, DeWayne Russell, Danny Wagner, Steve Weed, and Danny Wohl in various roles, including rarities like the doubleneck guitar and the Vox organ.
Bowles and his friends had a deep love for The Ventures, a band that had a big hand in popularizing surf rock and establishing its mariachi-tinged roots. A little bit of that influence comes out in the recordings that The Velvet Illusions released in fits and starts between 1967 and 1968. They had a little more staccato in their strings than most of the other heady bands of the early psychedelic scene; it didn’t last long, though. After a short stint in Hollywood mailing out eight-inch records, the homesick teens of The Velvet Illusions called it quits and returned to Washington.
Ever since his adventure in the Hollywood hippie scene (which the straight-edge singer never completely embraced), Bowles has kept most of his work in Washington. A tangent into electric blues in the early 1970s with his band Felix got him a gig fronting a country band with stranded Japanese expatriate Katsuhiko Kobayashi, which would prove to be one of Bowles’s last gigs in Yakima. He made the permanent move to Seattle, settling in Capitol Hill, and started from square one as a busker, a pastime that he still indulges now and then.
When Bowles came to the mild climes of Seattle, he found a lifelong friend in folk music. The genre was already fading from the national limelight by 1974 as Bowles became a devoted folkie, but it served him well nonetheless. His band Spirit Ridge operated throughout the 1980s and 1990s, playing some 500 shows, appearing at the Northwest Folklife Festival six times, and getting nods from various regional music awards.
“The great thing about folk music is the stories, the tradition, the fact that one person with a guitar, a banjo or just their voice, can be the whole band and tell a story that’s ageless, timeless, and stills apply to now,” Bowles said.
Things were quiet for Bowles in the years after Spirit Ridge called it quits, but he jumped back into his solo work in 2008. He has booked around 80 shows in that time, including a regular spot at the A/NT Gallery for their openings at the beginning of every month and a recurring gig at Black Coffee on the first Saturday of every month.
“Black Coffee is my favorite venue,” he said. “I’ve played there once a month for a year and a half now. I’m totally do-it-yourself, no agent, no manager. Black Coffee is there for me.”
The special birthday show at Black Coffee on April 8 comes just a couple weeks after Bowles underwent a hand surgery that he wasn’t sure would let him get back behind the mic so soon. He says he feels up to it, though. He plans on doing a three-hour performance with as little stopping as possible, running through some of his favorites from folk classics like Bob Dylan and The Byrds, some selections by The Beatles, a few acoustic renditions of The Velvet Illusions songs, plus some solo work that may make its premiere at the show. Bowles also promises that he’ll play “Joe Hill,” an iconic folk ballad about social justice, as a sign of solidarity for the Equal Pay Day demonstrations also happening on April 8.
Randy Bowles will take the stage at 7 p.m. at the Black Coffee Co-Op, located at 501 East Pine Street. The show is free and open to people of all ages.