Davina & the Vagabonds – Sunshine (review)

Davina & the Vagabonds – Sunshine (Roustabout Records) review

The first thing you hear on Sunshine, the new record from Davina & the Vagabonds, is singer Davina Sowers’ voice as if it’s being played on an old Victrola, coming at you from the distant past.  But then the band kicks in, the sound sharpens, and “Sunshine” rolls out: a mid-tempo number, layered with horns that makes you want to clap your hands.  There, in a span of a mere twenty seconds, is the essence of this great Minneapolis band: taking elements of the past (blues & New Orleans jazz), wrapping them in infectious melodies, and playing them with youthful abandon.

“Away From Me” sounds like a lost Billie Holiday torcher, especially when she sings “the blues got a hold of me.”  Sowers plays the misunderstood bad girl on “I Try to Be Good” – full of camp, and she nails it.  She has always had a knack for writing a good melody and “You Better Start Prayin’” is just the latest example.

It’s obvious that the band has honed their craft through a tireless list of live dates – the entire ensemble seems to be as one.  On their previous effort, Black Cloud, there were times when the band seemed to overpower Sowers or vise versa.  Here, they both blend seamlessly.

Sowers has grown as a vocalist as well.  “I’d Rather Drink Muddy Water” is a mere two minutes, yet she commands center stage as she turns her powerful voice loose, singing about her unfaithful man.

“You Must Be Losing Your Mind” is the album’s tour de force.  The dark tune features an almost Vaudevillian accompaniment, complete with brushes percussion and walking bassline.  Sowers’ heavily echoed voice sounds like it’s coming from some old radio with time-travel technology.  The track stretches to give each member a chance to solo, with trombone, muted trumpet, stand-up bass & drums – it’s certain to be a live show-stopper.

And then everything gets pulled back for “Heavenly Day,” featuring just Sowers and Rhodes piano – it’s stunningly beautiful in it’s simplicity.  The song works as much as a prayer as a traditional song.

With so much emphasis placed on bands that play elements of old music – Davina & the Vagabonds should be given the spotlight.  Between Sowers’ gritty, yet playful vocals, and the band’s spirited accompaniment, they’re poised to take the next step.  —Tony Peters