Like great athletes at the top of their game, some bands make the process of making music seem effortless. It’s admirable enough, but there’s much to be said for hard work, too. Take Minnesota’s Davina Sowers, vocalist, pianist, and leader of Davina And The Vagabonds. Over the frequently almost-frantic New Orleans-style grooves, she throws herself, body and soul, into each end every tune on Black Cloud, the band’s first all-original (fourth overall) collection, with performances that seem torn from her very soul.
The Vagabonds are definitely a hard-working outfit, averaging some three hundred shows a year for the five years leading up to the release of Black Cloud. That experience shows in the way they navigate the tight, focused arrangements, full of tricky syncopations, with easy and assured exuberance. Theirs isn’t a typical lineup – there’s upright bass (Michael Carvale), trombone (Darren Sterude), drums (Connor McRea) and trumpet (Dan Eikmeier), in addition to Sower’s piano. The result is a brassy sound (obviously), with lots of rat-a-tat percussion and oodles of razzmatazz.
Only one track falls within blues convention, but there’s a bluesy, bawdy vibe throughout. Davina comes across as a female Tom Waits, every bit the master’s equal as a composer and vocalist. Opener “Vagabod Stomp” sets the scene, with its growling horns, polyrhythmic percussion. The title track follows, introducing Sowers’ intriguing voice and delightfully idiosyncratic delivery. She’s sassy and brassy yet coy and kittenish at the same time, with a seemingly endless bag of vocal tricks to match the band’s every change-up.
Sowers wrote all the tunes, showing a sure hand both lyrically and with the intricate charts, and her piano work is just fine, though she doesn’t take much solo space – the horns do most of the work here, along with superb drumming from McRea. They play with that just-right blend of loose abandon and tight, turn-on-a-dime dexterity, negotiating complex changes with unerring ease. Material ranges from the jaunty shuffle of “Lipstick And Chrome” to the after-hours balladry of “Sugar Moon,” with pretty much everything in between jazzy and raucous and just plain fun. There’s even a nod to gospel on “Carry Him With You” before a brief reprise of “Vagabond Stomp” brings the party to a close.
Performances throughout are first-rate, and Sowers is clearly an accomplished songwriter. But it’s that voice, smoky and sultry and infinitely captivating, that truly makes this outfit special. Fetchingly winsome one moment, she’s tough as nails the next – she even pulls off spooky, on the bone-rattling, carnival-of-the-dead “Let’s Bring It Back” – and her phrasing is endlessly inventive, quirky yet devoid of affectation. She puts every ounce of energy she’s got into every line, yet she’s never excessive or over-the-top.
An absolutely delightful collection from a singular but significant talent, this one’s a winner. We’ll be hearing more from Ms. Sowers!