CD review: Not-so-traditional blues band scores

A vibe that runs through the newest release from Davina and the Vagabonds transports me to the Roaring '20s, like I've stepped into some kind of aural time machine.

A vibe that runs through the newest release from Davina and the Vagabonds transports me to the Roaring '20s, like I've stepped into some kind of aural time machine.

Listening to "Under Lock and Key," I'm driving a Stutz Bearcat and giving the secret password through a door-slot at my favorite speakeasy. But not one in Chicago with Capone's henchmen. Rather, I'm in New Orleans (where the city is pronounced as "Nawlins") with a second-line funeral procession going by in syncopated fashion.

Davina Sowers has a slinky-shimmying style in her writing, and her cover choices will surprise you. (Hank Williams would smile at her take on "Hey Good Lookin' "). Sowers clinks an old upright piano and her singing is the siren call of a chanteuse.

Sowers is just plain sassy on the classic "I'd Rather Go Blind." Like a Ferrari going 55 mph, she lets the lyric simmer for what seems an eternity, then builds to a climax that would make Etta James exclaim "Damn, girl can sang!"

"Shipwrecked" starts out like the music bed to a new PBS miniseries, but combines smart lyrics and nimble clarinet into a cute little ditty about unrequited love at the bottom of the sea.


The counterpoints to Sowers' smoldering voice are the tandem horns of Zoot Simonds on reeds and Zack Lozier on trumpet. Good chops, big fat tones and agile solos are the rule during inventive backing lines and volcanic rides. The rhythm section of Lamont Cranston alumnus Michael Caravale on bass and John Lund on drums are solid and sympathetic to the varied nuances thrown their way throughout the disc.

The almost flapper feel of "Nobody Till Somebody Loves You" would seem an odd choice on most other records produced in the last 40 years, but Sowers' smoky reading brings it into the 21st century. The torchy "You're Out of Luck" (just upright bass and piano backing) contains interesting rhythmic shifts that put a listener's ears to the test. "Red Shoes," the story of a woman who wants to be good but not just right now, is a tour de force for Simonds' blistering sax attack.

Sowers, originally from Pennsylvania, hit Key West, Fla., before finding her way north to the frozen tundra. She's been a standout on the Twin Cities music scene for the past three years.

Although Davina and the Vagabonds were a big hit at both of the last two Bayfront Blues Festivals, their versatility shows they are far from any kind of traditional blues band. Think of a cross between the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and the Wolverines Jazz Orchestra with a diva up front. It's a great combination.

John Ziegler has worked as program and music director at KUMD-FM for 31 years. He has produced seven compilation discs from some of his 3,500 in-studio sessions. He reviews music for the News Tribune. Reach him at .

Name: Davina and the Vagabonds

New CD: "Under Lock and Key"

Cost: $15 at Electric Fetus


Genre: Jazzy blues

Recommended if you like: Bonnie Raitt, Maria Muldaur and Billie Holiday

Members: Davina Sowers on piano, Rhodes electric piano and vocals; Michael Caravale on upright bass; Zack Lozier on trumpet; Zoot Simonds on sax; and John Lund on drums.

Web site:

Fun fact: The disc was recorded live at Gruvola Studios in Vadnais Heights, Minn., with no overdubs. To minimize unwanted sound, they put Sowers in a separate room with a TV monitor. The band communicated with good-natured hand gestures.

Upcoming gig: 6-10 p.m. Sunday at the Club Saratoga, 331 Canal Park Drive. There's no cover.

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