Musical nomads deliver the 'wow' factor

Davina & the Vagabonds
Songs on Davina & the Vagabonds' critically-praised new album "Black Cloud," often sound turn of the century, at times almost vaudevillian.
Courtesy of Davina & the Vagabonds

Featuring horns instead of guitars, and a frontwoman who looks as if she had been lifted from another century, the music of Davina and the Vagabonds doesn't fit the traditional Minneapolis indie rock mold. But that hasn't stopped their new CD "Black Cloud," from being hailed as one of the best of the year by local critics.

Davina and the Vagabonds play Friday at the Dakota in Minneapolis, and first-timers should be prepared for a certain kind of 'wow.' It gave Pittsburgh Post Gazette blues blogger Jim White a strong impression when he saw Davina Sowers and her bandmates appear at a festival in Wheeling, W. Va. in August 2010.

"She came out on stage and I think she opened up with a wild, raucous Fats Domino number," White said. "And she had a trombone player and a trumpet player and an upright bass player, and she's playing electric piano and it was just kind of like, something new and totally refreshing."

"By the end of her set it was just like 'Who is this person?' and why is this 30-something young woman making music that makes it sounds like she's been... I don't know... working in a brothel in New Orleans all of her life?" White said.

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It's partly because Sowers has been a musical nomad ever since she escaped her depressed hometown of Altoona, Pa. when she was 15.

"Seriously," Souwers said. "I don't think they were ready for me. They didn't get me. And I was very obstinate."

Sowers went as far away from home as she could, to places like Tucson, Ariz., and then Key West, Fla., where she made a living as a busker for seven years. That's where she met her future husband and upright bassist Michael Carvale. She joined him when he came to Minnesota to go to school.

Sowers successfully emancipated herself from her past, although it still has a hold on her music. The songs on her critically praised new album "Black Cloud," often sound turn of the century, at times almost vaudevillian.

"I have this weird era instilled in me, even at my house, and when I'm telling stories through my music, I just seem to live in that type of nation, just a really old one," she said.

Sowers sometimes sees mental images of a bygone country when she writes: tall grass, old homes and peeling paint, workers in darkly colored oilcloth clothes and smudged faces, living hard lives. Her songs pay tribute to them.

"I think it's important to really portray the grit of the history of what American people have gone through," she said.

One might view Sowers' songwriting as an attempt to return to a romanticized vision of the railroad town she grew up in, transplanted to another era. She admits she yearns for a more honest, humble, less complicated time.

"There just seems to be this simplistic way of smaller towns and... even though it's not," Sowers said. "I lived in a smaller town. It probably ate me alive more than being around tons of people but there's just something about 'back to the basics' for me. When I'm on the road or I'm on tour and I look out and I see untouched land, I almost get teary-eyed cause I think, 'I could just lay out there forever."

Constantly on the road, Davina and the Vagabonds play an amazing 300-plus gigs a year, and have independently sold 10,000 CDs over the last four years. Their vagabond ways have allowed Davina Sowers and her bandmates to fulfill the dream of any artist: to make a living off their work.