Car­ry­ing the torch

Dav­ina and the Vagabonds

Pasatiempo - - CONTENTS - Casey Sanchez

Dav­ina Sow­ers vamps her way through sets of bluesy Dix­ieland songs in jazz clubs across the coun­try, but she would look equally at home in a 1920s New Orleans speakeasy. On stage, she con­jures up im­ages of ragtime glam­our — ruby red lipstick, a tiered fringe dress, and a Bake­lite neck­lace fram­ing a Sailor Jerry-es­que chest tat­too. Her dark tresses are neatly flat­tened to a few waves that peek out of a tilt hat. But it’s no act. Mu­si­cally speak­ing, Sow­ers’ 1980s girl­hood might as well have taken place in the Pro­hi­bi­tion era. “I ac­tu­ally grew up lis­ten­ing to a lot of Amer­i­cana on records played on an Edi­son Vic­trola,” she told Pasatiempo. “My fa­ther was born in 1902. He adopted me and my mom was half his age. It was her fourth mar­riage. What can I say? It was dif­fer­ent grow­ing up. Peo­ple would ask if he was my grand­fa­ther,” Sow­ers said. “He was a great dad and he in­stilled a love of good mu­sic in me.”

A clas­si­cally trained pi­anist, Sow­ers set out on her own at fif­teen, ac­quir­ing an­other type of ed­u­ca­tion through years of hard liv­ing as a quasi-home­less gui­tar and ukulele busker in Key West. Eleven years ago, she re­dis­cov­ered her love of early-20th-cen­tury blues and jazz and de­camped to Minneapolis, where she formed the Vagabonds.

Dav­ina and the Vagabonds — trum­pet player Zack Lozier, trom­bon­ist Steve Rog­ness, drum­mer Con­nor McRae Ham­mer­gren, and up­right bass player Matt Blake — play at Sky­light on Wed­nes­day, Sept. 21.

A good en­try point to the group’s mu­sic is “Sun­shine,” a melodic ditty off the 2014 al­bum of the same name. At first, the song seems to nod, lyri­cally and son­i­cally, to the old-time coun­try of “You Are My Sun­shine.” Sower’s vo­cals are re­verbed and fil­tered through a gos­samer of an­tique record crackle: “Fi­nally got my feet back on the ground/The clouds have cleared and gone away/Noth­ing’s ever go­ing to bring me down/My smile is fi­nally here to stay.” Then a spate of trum­pets and trom­bones per­forms a ragtime cake­walk along an in­stantly hummable 1960s Mem­phis soul hook that wouldn’t be out of place on an Amy Wine­house B-side. The song’s feel-good re­frain turns out to be the cho­rus to an ebul­lient ode to the joys of break­ing up with a bad lover who wouldn’t com­mit — “Boy I think it’s time to reeval­u­ate your claim/Chang­ing ev­ery­thing about me ex­cept my name . ... ”

Ear­lier this year, the band re­leased a full-length live al­bum, Ni­col­let and Tenth, named for the in­ter­sec­tion that’s home to Minneapolis’ Dakota Jazz Club, where it was recorded, and where the Vagabonds have been some­thing of a house band for over a decade. The live per­for­mance com­prises the band’s best-known songs, as well as cov­ers of Fats Domino’s “Ain’t That a Shame” and the Etta James torch song “I’d Rather Go Blind.”

With their con­tem­po­rary ar­range­ments and Roar­ing Twen­ties trum­pet-and-trom­bone melodies, Dav­ina and the Vagabonds cross a num­ber of mu­si­cal eras. “You have to re­mem­ber that a lot of jazz, a lot of blues, was the pop mu­sic of its time,” Sow­ers said. “Louis Arm­strong was the D’An­gelo of his era.” Ex­tend­ing the metaphor to the an­tique Edi­son Vic­trola she still owns and uses daily, Bow­ers added, “Edi­son was the Ap­ple of its day. Un­like a Gramo­phone, the Edi­son would only play Edi­son discs.”

The band’s work ethic is old school. Play­ing more than 200 dates a year, Dav­ina and the Vagabonds has built a word-of-mouth fol­low­ing through its siz­zling live per­for­mances. The Minneapolis Star Tri­bune rated their de­but al­bum Black Cloud one of the 10 best releases of the year. Down­Beat, a tastemaker mag­a­zine among the jazz, blues, and roots crowd, gave the al­bum 4.5 stars.

Sow­ers is clearly adept at writ­ing con­tem­po­rary pop-song hooks, although the band’s son­ics re­main com­pletely retro. The Vagabonds es­chew gui­tars — and any elec­tric in­stru­ments, for that mat­ter. Their blind trust in the abil­ity of trum­pets and trom­bones to carry a song’s melody is rem­i­nis­cent of New Orleans’ Preser­va­tion Hall Jazz Band. Though the band largely per­forms orig­i­nal songs, its cover cut of the Fats Waller sta­ple “You Must Be Los­ing Your Mind” is a per­fect ex­am­ple of the Vagabonds at their best, giv­ing the trum­peter and the trom­bon­ist as much solo time as the lead singer. There are no pop hooks here or con­tem­po­rary facelifts of a song that reached its peak fame in the 1930s. It’s what Dav­ina and the Vagabonds do best — pro­duce lov­ing, faith­ful re­cre­ations of an­other gen­er­a­tion’s odes to hard times, good liv­ing, and the foibles of ro­mance.

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