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‘Stupendously good’ Davina Sowers: ‘I try to be as dynamic as I can be’

Performing at the Monterey Jazz Festival this weekend, Davina and the Vagabonds will be back at the Dakota on Friday, Sept. 27.

“It wasn’t planned, and it was kind of crazy. It fell into my lap. Someone asked me if I had a band. I lied and said yes. He said, ‘I have a house gig, would you like it? Every Tuesday, starting next month on the 20th.’ I said sure. I felt I couldn’t miss the opportunity.”
Photo by Ezra Moore

She’s been called “the hardest-working blueswoman in frigid Minnesota.” More recently, a UK reviewer dubbed Twin Cities-based singer-songwriter-pianist Davina Sowers and her group, the Vagabonds, “just stupendously, bloody good.”

If you live in or around Minneapolis or St. Paul, you’ve probably heard of Davina and the Vagabonds, and chances are you’ve seen them in person: at the Dakota Jazz Club or the Dakota Street Fest, an art fair, the School II or the Crooked Pint, Famous Dave’s or Lee’s or Memory Lanes or one of the countless other places they bring their signature brand of raucous, soulful, bluesy, jazzy, New Orleans-y, juke-joint music. High-energy and danceable, it’s nostalgic yet timeless. Davina describes it simply as “a new spin on an old sound.”

From Pennsylvania to Minnesota via Key West

Born in Altoona, Penn., to a folk-singing mother and a music-loving father with stacks of old blues and jazz recordings he played on his Victrola, Davina studied classical piano and started singing as a child in Grange Halls and at 4-H events.

“My mom entered me in every beauty pageant,” Davina says. “We couldn’t afford the gowns, so I competed in the photogenic and talent contests.” As an adult, she went through a gypsy phase, backpacking her way to Key West, then California, then Key West again, where she worked as a street musician.

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In February 2005, she met Michael Carvale, a bass player with the Minneapolis-based Lamont Cranston band, and moved to Minnesota. In 2006, they started a new band.

“It wasn’t planned, and it was kind of crazy. It fell into my lap. Someone asked me if I had a band. I lied and said yes. He said, ‘I have a house gig, would you like it? Every Tuesday, starting next month on the 20th.’ I said sure. I felt I couldn’t miss the opportunity. We put together four hours of material, put the people together, and haven’t stopped since.”

On the road and in the air

By 2008, Davina and the Vagabonds were playing and touring full-time, averaging 300 dates per year in and around the Twin Cities metro area. Now that they’re traveling more, they’re down to about 250 performances per year. “We’re working the same amount, but we’re in a van or on a plane a lot more.” They’ve shared the stage with Pinetop Perkins, Aaron Neville, Robert Cray, Booker T and the MGs, Irma Thomas, James Hunter, and many others.

Davina’s band includes Dan Eikmeier on trumpet and vocals, Ben Link on trombone and vocals, Alec Tackmann on drums and Andrew Burns on sousaphone and upright bass. You might expect a band with bluesy roots to have a guitar; you won’t miss it. “When I write, I write for brass more than anything else,” Davina says. “In my head, that’s what I hear when I’m writing. We make a lot of noise for such a small band.

How does she travel with all those men? “I have a phenomenal group of guys. Each is so different personality-wise, and of course we get on each other’s nerves, but they’re definitely a really balanced group, and they’re clean. They have their little idiosyncrasies that drive me mad, but to be honest, I don’t know if it would be any easier to travel with four women. They’re responsible, Level-A players. When they’re with me, they’re great, they’re supportive, and I’m the crazy one – the most overly passionate and assertive person of the group. They do really well with dealing with me.”

Passion, precision and personal style

Davina’s passion is evident in her singing and performing style. She purrs and growls, whispers and wails. Sweet and seductive one moment, she’s in your face the next, and then she makes you laugh. Her voice is a complex, expressive, flexible instrument made of sugar and grit. Hearing her talk gives almost no clue to how she sounds when she sings. It’s part song, part storytelling, part theater. “I think about the story,” she explains, “and lend my voice to the phrasing of the song. I try to be as dynamic as I can be, to tune into the truth of what I’m singing and saying.”

She’s been compared to singers as diverse and disparate as Nina Simone, Maria Muldaur, Bessy Smith, Amy Winehouse and Adele. “When people compare me to other singers, it’s hard for me because I’ve never sat down and dissected their singing. I don’t own an Amy Winehouse album. I don’t own an Adele album. I just try to be as honest as I can with the story I’m telling in the voice I choose to tell the story.”

As much as Davina plays with the words she sings, shaping each one in often surprising ways, her diction is precise. “If I’m going to spend the time to tell you a story, to take you on a trip with that specific song, I want you to hear what I’m telling you. I don’t want to leave you hanging. The words are there for a reason.”

Davina’s personal style is as distinctive as her voice. The first time we saw her, she was wearing a teeny, tiny top hat – on the side of her head. “I’m a lover of vintage clothing. I’m a bigger woman, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. But I’m not one for showing the goods. It’s not that  kind of show. I have certain eras I lean toward, and I mix them up as well. I’m definitely a sassy dresser. Bold and fun. Petticoats and lipsticks.”

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On stage, whether pounding the piano or belting out a lyric, Davina is utterly in the moment, ready to sing, say and do almost anything. She seems fearless. Is she?

“I am. On stage, in front of an audience, is the time when I feel most secure. I can be 100 percent myself. I can be shy. I can be angry and get away with it. I can be happy, and people can share that with me. I can cry. It’s my time to be exactly who I am, and be accepted for who I am.”

The road to Monterey

When we spoke with Davina by phone earlier this week, she had just arrived at her home in St. Paul from three weeks in Europe, where the band performed at the Sierre Blues Festival in Switzerland, the Blues in Hell Festival in Hell, Norway, and five venues in the UK. This weekend, they’ll all get back on a plane and fly to California for the Monterey Jazz Festival, where they’ll play at 5:30 Sunday afternoon on the Garden Stage.

During his 2010 festival performance on that same stage, Trombone Shorty had fans climbing trees to see over the way-more-than-capacity crowd. If that happens again for Davina’s set, we won’t be at all surprised.

Back in December, we suspected that Davina might be heading for Monterey 2013 when we saw that she and her band were booked for the Kuumbwa Jazz Center in Santa Cruz. Kuumbwa’s artistic director and co-founder, Tim Jackson, is also artistic director of the Monterey Jazz Festival. “We didn’t know the Kuumbwa/Montery connection,” Davina says. “But three days after we performed at Kuumbwa, Tim Jackson contacted me about performing at Monterey.”

What can festival-goers expect to see and hear on Sunday afternoon? “A high-energy show. We’re going to throw down and do what we do and do the best we can. It’s a 90-minute set. How can you screw that up? We’re going to give them the best gosh-darned time.”

(Twin Cities DATV fans, don’t despair. Davina and the Vagabonds will be back at the Dakota on Friday, Sept. 27. 8 p.m., 1010 Nicollet Mall, $15 cover. FMI. Check the band’s very up-to-date calendar for future dates.)