Dalannah Gail Bowen channels Billie Holiday's pain
Dalannah Gail Bowen has been a fixture on the Vancouver blues scene for going on 40 years. Whether performing in the annual Vancouver Food Bank fundraiser she created, Blues For Christmas, or opening for the likes of Willie Dixon and BB King at the Commodore, if there was a blues gig in town, chances were Bowen was involved.
Or maybe you'd just see her in the crowd, joyfully taking it all in.
Emotion-drenched vocals have always been Bowen's calling card, so it's a little surprising to learn that her musical life didn't start as a singer. When she was young she showed real promise as a keyboardist.
"It was kind of an escape for me because my household and my upbringing was very tough," recalls Bowen, on the line from her Downtown East Side Co-op. "I didn't fit in, so they bought a piano, and I used to play for hours and hours, so I wouldn't have to deal with the family. I even got to play with the Junior Symphony Orchestra of Winnipeg as the concert soloist.
"My one big regret is that I don't play the piano anymore," she adds. "I'd thought about taking it up again, but it just didn't happen. I decided to focus on my voice."
That decision to pursue a career as a singer has led to a life full of rich musical experiences for the 75-year-old crooner. One of the richest involved the times when Bowen, while living in Winnipeg in the sixties, performed several times at a nightclub called the Town and Country Lounge with none other than jazz legend Lenny Breau.
"Lenny and I had a pretty special relationship," says Bowen. "As you know he was a heroin addict, and when he was trying to get clean he would come to my house, and stay for a coupla days, and I'd take care of him—then off he'd go again. He did that when I moved to Edmonton too."
Breau is considered one of the greatest guitarists of all time—Telecaster master Danny Gatton once labeled him "The Humbler"—and Bowen has no doubts about that.
"When some people play it feels like it's a divine connection," she says, "like the music is just coming through them. And no matter who you are, it touches you. Lenny played like that."
Bowen has been making some connections of her own with fans of the blues, the genre that she's immersed herself in, body and soul, for so many years.
"It's heart music," she says. "I mean I don't know anybody that can't mention a blues song that meant something to them. It really speaks to truth and life experience—for me, anyway. And the other thing is, it's easily accessible, because if you want to just open your ears and listen, it'll take you on a journey."
Speaking of blues journeys, Bowen's latest trek will bring her to Frankie's Jazz on July 4, when she'll be performing a jazz fest tribute to Billie Holiday titled Billie's Blues. She'll be accompanied at that gig by bassist Miles Hill, saxophonist Dave Say, and her musical partner of 28 years, pianist Michael Creber.
"Michael Creber is the most wonderful piano player," raves Bowen. "I've been so very fortunate—through all of the blues, from my very first album, Mama's Got the Blues, right on to now, he's been playing with me. And because he's such a strong musician he's adept at everything, you know. His jazz colourings are beautiful, his phrasing is beautiful—which is good, because I'm a back-phraser. Sometimes he'll say, 'Stay on the beat', and I'll go 'Well, I don't stay on the beat, I'm sorry'."
Bowen can't remember the first time she heard Billie Holiday's voice, but she can't forget the effect it had on her.
"When I first heard her, I just felt so much pain in her voice, you know. That's what it makes me think of when I hear Billie sing. Her songs are wonderful, but they're very remorseful.
"I'm just making up the setlist now," she adds, "and it's an interesting study with her songs, because a lot of them are in that regretful, sad stage, where it's a love lost, anger at love—you know what I mean. So it has to be paced properly to make it work, because I try not to go to a place where everything is depressing, right. I try to take people on a journey and hopefully come out at the end with a resolution that makes sense of what I've just shared."
Dalannah Gail Bowen performs Billie's Blues at Frankie's Jazz Club on July 4 at 7:30 pm as part of the TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival.