Alternative, Americana, New Orleans, blues, and – of course – jazz, all presented by one charismatic, modern big band.
Davina & The Vagabonds
Label: Roustabout Records
Time: 12 tracks / 42:00 minutes
I have to give a special thanks to Steve Karas (promotions for Flying Colors) for putting this band in front of me. One doesn’t come across many New Orleans-inspired jazz acts when primarily reviewing progressive rock, but I did really like Hugh Laurie’s Didn’t it Rain? back in 2013, and Davina & the Vagabonds’ Sunshine is another pleasant surprise from a realm outside of my normal wheelhouse.
Purporting a genre somewhat out of its time, I imagine Davina and crew are perhaps easily dismissed as a gimmick act, but this is a band with talent, vision, and passion for their craft. In fact, Sunshine hit number 13 in the Billboard Blues Chart and continues in the vein of Davina’s first release, an album called Black Cloud, which opened the door for her into this rich musical tradition. Sunshine’s title track opens the album with the scratchy, poorly tuned audio quality of a phonograph, a nod to the era of Duke Ellington, before the mix audibly shifts into more modern audio quality. This neat production trick is as much a warm homage as it is a statement of the direct connection the Vagabonds have with their chosen genre’s forefathers.
At their core, DAV are a quintet of upright bass (Andrew Burns), drums & percussion (Connor McRae Hammergren), and a horns section (trumpet, Dan Eikmeier; trombone, Ben Link), altogether complimenting the Rhodes, piano, and vocals of Davina Sowers herself. Sunshine also features a pair of guests musicians in its credits, Zach Miller on vibraphone and Tonly Balluff on the clarinet, rounding the group’s musical compliment for the studio. Hailing from Twin Cities, Minnesota, the Vagabonds’ stage presence is soulful, evoking Bourbon Street charm and Memphis swagger in any locale they play. Their songs include a wide array of predictable influences – waltzes, soul, funk, gospel, and blues – and are rooted in Davina’s focused songwriting. The playful, nostalgic atmosphere of their craft involves an exquisite melancholy – what only blues- and gospel-influenced music can truly do: partner bright and even uptempo music with sorrowful, soul-wrenching lyrics.
Of course, there’s plenty of spunk to be found here as well – from “Sunshine’s” defiant “knees-never-ever-gonna-touch-the-floor” declaration of independence, to “I Try to Be Good’s” simpering excuses for deviance, to the cautionary “Better Start Prayin,” to “Red Shoes’” raise-the-roof sentiment, there’s a wide array of themes to be found on Sunshine. “Flow” is a pledge of faith in someone down on their luck; “Fizzle” is a gentle, lilting ballad conjuring visions of the night sky; “Away From Me” employs a swaying blues progression to portray the helplessness of romantic loss; the brief “Throw it to the Wolves for Love” bounces in 2/4, caution-be-damned boldness, back-to-back with the howling “I’d Rather Drink Muddy Water’s” adamant refusal to be used. “You Must Be Losing Your Mind” is my overall favorite track on the album. Clocking in at 6 minutes and 45 seconds, this track features solos across all instruments, plenty of walking bass and soulful vocals, altogether putting me in mind of John Coltrane or Thelonious Monk. The album concludes with “Heavenly Day,” a Rhodes-based, emotive gospel number, and the whimsical “Under Lock and Key.”
Davina and Co release a new live record TODAY, Nicollet and Tenth, which is available at this link: https://www.hellomerch.com/collections/davina-and-the-vagabonds. These are both records for sharing on late nights with candles and company. Of course, I'm presenting to you Sunshine nearly two years after its release, but with roots that extend all the way back to the 1920s, this album boasts a style and a presentation that continues to stand the test of time.