When Kevin Bowers takes the stage at the Sound of St. Louis Showcase at the Grandel this weekend, he'll have one of the biggest entourages of the show, with bandmates numbering well into the teens, and together they'll recreate much of the magic from Bowers' 2016 record Nova.
That album, and the past two years' worth of live shows, have transmuted Bowers' love of Brazilian music into a jazz-rooted, polyrhythmic collection of songs that showcase his competence as a bandleader as well as a songwriter. There will be a rotating cast of lead singers, a horn section, several percussionists and a pair of dancers wearing little more than colorful feathered costumes and a smile. If all goes as planned, it will be a both a transportive and a deeply local experience: a collection of St. Louis' best musicians creating music to conjure a far-away land.
Last year, Bowers was tasked with serving as bandleader for the all-star Chuck Berry tribute at LouFest that saw the likes of Valerie June, Huey Lewis, Pokey LaFarge and members of Spoon and Cage the Elephant paying homage to rock & roll's founding father. Reflecting on it a year later, Bowers simply says, "You can't repeat something like that.
"It was a once in a lifetime experience, for sure," he says. "Especially having all of the those top musicians walk in and leave their ego at the door, too. It was a monumental achievement for LouFest to have these St. Louis musicians playing with national artists."
The Chuck Berry tribute was a major recognition for Bowers, who has long been known as a first-call drummer around St. Louis but who has more recently honed his skills as a bandleader. It was Nova that brought more attention to his skill set — the album's ambition and execution spoke to his musical chops, and the people behind LouFest took notice. After a Nova set at Jazz at the Bistro last year, LouFest's Mike Van Hee approached Bowers.
"I think originally he was trying to get us to do something at LouFest, but that fell through," Bowers says. "He then said, 'We're thinking about doing this Chuck Berry thing; would you like to be the musical director and put a band together?'"
For the 2018 edition of LouFest, Bowers was asked to headline the new all-local Jazz and Heritage Stage on Saturday, but in light of the event's cancellation, he'll perform as part of the Sound of St. Louis Showcase instead, which will feature a host of like-minded St. Louis acts that were supposed to perform at LouFest: Ben Reece's Unity Quartet, Bob DeBoo, The Burney Sisters, Dracla, Grace Basement, Jesse Gannon, Kasimu-tet, Kevin Bowers Nova, The Knuckles, Mo Egeston, Owen Ragland, Ptah Williams Trio, The River Kittens, Scrub & Ace Ha, and Tonina.
Bowers will be back behind the kit and he and the group, formally known as Kevin Bowers' Nova, will seek to recreate the live sets that it performs semi-regularly around town.
Just getting all the musicians in the same room is a task: Lead vocals are split among Sleepy Kitty's Paige Brubeck, guitarist-about-town Jimmy Griffin, El Monstero backing vocalist Erminie Cannon and blues singer Mike Aguirre. Members of the Funky Butt Brass Band fill out the horn section, and Bowers' longtime bandmates from the Feed fill in on guitar and piano. Bowers says that the group has worked out some new material over the past year, but for this set they will lean on the material from the record.
That's not to say that Bowers has been sitting still since Nova dropped. This summer, he spent five days in Havana, Cuba, with the primary purpose of studying Cuban song forms — clave, son, rumba and salsa. He studied with percussion master Jose Eladio, an experience that left Bowers (himself a music teacher) temporarily befuddled.
"He'd show me this rhythm, and then he'd leave the room. I'd think, 'Where's he going?'," Bowers says. "And he'd come back in ten minutes and I'm playing this same rhythm over and over. That's the thing with Cuban music and that African influence — you're not playing for three minutes, you gotta keep going. Finally when I'd get it, he'd bring in his sticks and start jamming with me."
Bowers has no plans to record a new album at the moment and, still fresh off his trip, he can't say exactly how his trip to Cuba will color his music.
"That's sort of the unknown — I really don't know," he says. "I don't think I'm gonna put on the Ry Cooder hat and produce a Buena Vista Social Club record or anything like that. But I think the sights, the sounds, the smells, the people will eventually seep through the cracks of my songwriting, eventually. But right now I'm just really interested in getting better as a musician."
Kevin Bowers will perform Sunday at the Grandel Theatre as part of the Sound of St. Louis Showcase.