News From Terre Haute, Indiana

June 30, 2010

Valley native rocker returns to Tickle the Haute

Mark Bennett
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — The scene mesmerized Rikk Sowers.

He and bandmate J.R. Bable stood beside the stage, watching famed rock frontman Sammy Hagar sing during a sound check before a show. Sowers, Bable and their band — the Arizona foursome known as Tickle — were serving as Hagar’s opening act at a Tucson casino.

“That experience was unbelievable,” Sowers recalled. “Me and my drummer [Bable] looked like two Cheshire cats, standing there grinning.”

Later, Hagar presented a chilled bottle of his own Cabo Wabo tequila to Sowers, expecting the band to drink it as Tickle’s performance unfolded. “I’m not really a tequila drinker,” Sowers said, but — out of deference to his iconic benefactor — he “had a good old time that day.”

Rock ’n’ roll has paired Sowers and Tickle with plenty of chart-topping artists. They’ve opened for Joan Jett, Pat Benatar, Rick Springfield, Night Ranger, Kansas and Foreigner. “I’ve been very blessed,” Sowers said, “and been very lucky all these years.”

Sowers just turned 40. Exactly half his lifetime ago, he left Terre Haute — where he grew up — for the Southwest. That was 1990. “With hair down to the middle of my back — a late ’80s rocker kid — I didn’t exactly fit in, in Terre Haute,” he quipped. So Sowers headed to Tucson, where his dad, a former popular musician in Terre Haute clubs, also lived. Sowers has been performing in Arizona, California and Nevada ever since.

This weekend, his career comes “full circle,” as he put it. Sowers and Tickle will return to the Haute. They’ll be the headliners for a two-night gig at Mulligan’s Pub & Restaurant west of Honey Creek Mall, playing from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. on both Friday, July 2, and Saturday, July 3.

Old friends from his alma maters — Woodrow Wilson Middle School and Terre Haute South Vigo High School — shouldn’t be able to detect signs of his recent milestone birthday. “I certainly don’t feel it,” said Sowers, a member of South’s Class of 1988. “I’m pretty happy to say I don’t look it, and I certainly don’t act it.”

His role in the band requires youthful energy. Sowers handles lead vocals and guitar for Tickle, whose members all work in the health-care field. By day, Sowers is a registered respiratory therapist and hyperbaric clinical specialist at Tucson Medical Center. Sixty to 80 nights a year, he’s on center stage with Tickle, playing “everything from the Temptations to Metallica.”

“We even do Taylor Swift,” he added. “It’s fun.”

Fronting a band comes naturally for Sowers. “He’s a ham,” said his mother, Patricia Livvix. “He loves what he does, and he interacts with the audience.”

Musical ability runs in his family. His dad, Richard Sowers Sr., played drums and piano on the Wabash Avenue nightclub circuit in the 1940s, before joining the military. The elder Sowers continued performing as a serviceman, with shows in such exotic places as Europe, Ethiopia and Hawaii. Patricia’s mother used to sing Big Band music. “So [Rikk] kind of gets it from both sides,” said Patricia, who now lives in Coatesville.

After his parents separated, Rikk, then age 5, moved to Terre Haute, where his grandfather founded Roselawn Cemetery. During his years at Woodrow Wilson and Terre Haute South, Sowers learned cello, trumpet, drums and piano. When he received a guitar as a gift, Patricia asked a friend to give her son lessons on that instrument. A few sessions later, her friend said, “Pat, I can’t teach him anything. He already knows more than I know.”

The guitar still accompanies Sowers with Tickle. Sometimes, just to liven up the shows, he’ll pull an audience member on stage, strap his guitar on them and walk off for a one-minute break while they fumble through a “solo,” said keyboardist Jon Wilson.

“He’s pretty wild,” Wilson added of Sowers. “He gets crazy. But he’s also very precise.”

The shows and the music are sharply rehearsed and prepared, Wilson explained.

Sowers, Bable, Wilson and bassist Adam Phillips became a band almost by accident. Connected by their jobs, they heard about each other’s musical skills and agreed to play an office Christmas party. “Everybody expected a raggedy band of people, thrown together,” said Sowers, who’d played Arizona coffeehouses for years, “and it actually turned out to be pretty good.”

They used the name Flatline initially, but discovered several other bands had that moniker, and switched to Tickle after spotting it in a advertisement.

The four have played together since 1998.

“I think it kind of balances what they see through the week in the hospital,” said Patricia Livvix. “So it’s kind of a release for them.”

The guys relaxed a lot at that gig with Hagar nearly eight years ago. “When you’re sharing Cabo Wabo tequila with Sammy Hagar, it doesn’t get any better than that,” said Wilson, 34.

Sowers hopes to “show the band off” to his hometown, Wilson said, but more so hopes “to get in contact with his friends and family that he’s totally lost contact with.” Sowers — like his bandmates — has a family in Arizona, with his wife of five years, Amanda, and two daughters.

The Friday and Saturday shows will be their first in Terre Haute.

“It’ll be a lot of fun bringing all the guys out here,” he said.

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.