Davina and the Vagabonds
Red House Records
Minneapolis-based combo Davina and the Vagabonds’ latest record, Sugar Drops, is one of my favorite releases of the year. Singer/songwriter/pianist Davina Sowers’ powerful, dulcet tones seamlessly blend the best bits of jazz, blues, soul and Americana (a la Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Etta James and Amy Winehouse) into a ten-track stunner that embraces you like smooth silk. Her rich, layered, smoky vocals and eclectic personality shine through as she tells her life story through her songs, a life riddled with ups and downs. Heroin addiction, homelessness and jail plagued the sultry songstress at a young age but she beat the odds, overcoming her addiction and immersing herself in the music to become a thriving artist. Recorded at Compass Sound Studio in Nashville and tightly produced by Gerry West, this album marks Sowers’ first foray into recording in a studio, utilizing a producer and using guitar, the fruits of which proved to be very much in Sowers’ favor. Sowers is backed by some of Nashville’s finest session musicians including Doug Lancio (guitar), Todd Phillips (bass), Jordan Perlson (drums), Roland Barber (trombone), Jim Hoke (clarinet, baritone sax, flute, pedal steel, and Hammond B3 on two tracks), and last but far from least, Reese Wynans (Hammond B3 on three tracks). Lozier’s husband and band mate, Zack Lozier, also adds colorful trumpet and coronet. Those are some heavy hitters who add great depth to this outstanding collection of songs including nine originals and one Ben Harper cover.
With a strong nod to old-school New Orleans jazz, “Bone Collection” starts things off and showcases Sowers’ diverse vocal range and control. The horn flavors and clarinet accents paired with her hypnotic voice pull you in immediately as she sings, Strap yourself in/It’s gonna be a wild ride.
Perhaps the most pop-oriented of the tracks, “I Can’t Believe I Let You Go” has a funky little groove complemented by crisp horns and clarinet. Wynans adds his own subtle spin on Hammond B3.
Slathered in jazzy calypso vibes including Ella Fitzgerald-esque scatting and sure to have you dancing, “Devil Horns” is a bona fide winner. There’s no mistaking the “Iko Iko”/”Banana Boat Song” feel and the nod to June Carter Cash/Merle Kilgore’s “Ring of Fire” horns.
The brilliant “Little Miss Moonshine” is one of my favorites. It’s Sowers at her finest, defending her own musical principles and thumbing her nose up at “phony” musicians who don’t stay true to their own sound. Keys master Wynans once again adds Hammond B3 to the prominent piano and background horns.
The title track, “Sugar Drops,” conjures images of a smoke-infused blues piano bar with Sowers belting it out in piercing tones while the audience listens, mesmerized. There’s zero pretense here. Sowers is the real deal.
The only cover on this outstanding offering is “Another Lonely Day,” a Ben Harper composition that Sowers’ completely makes her own. Harper’s simple, impassioned acoustic original is transformed into an alluring masterpiece. The mix of Sowers’ piano and Wynans’ dynamic Hammond B3 combined with backing and featured horns is pure magic. Followed by the uber jazzy “No Matter Where We Are” and the doleful “Mr. Big Talker” with gorgeous string accompaniment, Sowers then brings it back up with the fun, jazzy “Magic Kisses.” Closing it out with a perfectly chosen piece, “Deep End,” Sowers gives it all she’s got as her incredible piano and vocal skills are on full display.
Davina Sowers is one of those performers who easily “could” veer towards over the top if she allowed it, but she never does. Her enticing style and sound are as original and refreshing as her personality, and she knows how to temper it all to create something uniquely inspiring. Her voice is in a class by itself and she carefully pays homage to her musical influences while developing her own sound, a feat not easily accomplished. Her back story makes her success all the more sweeter. I love everything about this record and I surely hope to see Davina and the Vagabonds live some day. That would be a treat, indeed.