Davina & the Vagabonds – Black Cloud (CD review)

Davina & the Vagabonds – Black Cloud  – (Roustabout Records) (Album review)

Davina & the Vagabonds play a blend of horn-driven retro blues and jazz – the kind of music that was blasting out of New Orleans in the 20’s & 30’s.  Yet, the band has a couple of things that set them apart from their fellow revivalists.  For one, they’ve got an utterly amazing vocalist in leader Davina Sowers, who’s able to rasp like Billie Holiday, soar like Dinah Washington, bellow like Sarah Vaughan and get goofy like Ethel Merman, yet manage to still sound completely unique.  She’s one of those rare singers that make you smile when you hear her.

But, the truly singular element that this band possesses that should eventually rocket them to notoriety is the songs. Most roots artists, especially those who take a very traditional approach like this (piano, bass, drums, trombone, & trumpet), tend to stick to classic songs by other people.  Yet, every track on Black Cloud was composed by Sowers.  Because the horns are likely the first thing you notice, it may take awhile for her lyrics to set in, yet she’s capable of tremendous imagery.  Take for instance the ukulele-led “Bee Sting,” with the lines “I’m sick of makin’ / the same old bread / the kind you eat / and you’re still not fed.” Many of the tracks, like “Black Cloud” and “Pushpin,” have the sis-boom-bah of classic Vaudeville, while others, like “Disappears” and “Pocket” are surprisingly melodic and poppy.  In fact, if you stripped away the arrangements of those two songs, you might end up with something akin to say Ben Folds.

The Vagabonds band are a tight bunch, with the brash horns and upright bass (which is particularly good on the aforementioned “Bee Sting”).  The production isn’t flashy, but that’s exactly what it needs.  There is no attempt to turn this into something other than what it is – roots music played with reckless abandon.  The album also works because it’s full of so many emotions, from the ass-kickin’ attitude of “Start Runnin’” to the pleading of “Lipstick and Chrome,” to the teary “River.”  Another highlight is “Carry Him With You,” a gospel-inspired piece that makes an excellent closer.  While their style of music certainly can’t be called mainstream, Davina & the Vagabonds, with their great songs and performances, have the makings of something bigger.  – Tony Peters