Carrying the torch
Davina and the Vagabonds
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.