Review: Davina and the Vagabonds celebrate life at The Mill

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Davina and the Vagabonds are a quintet (drums, bass, trombone, trumpet, piano/ukulele) from the Twin Cities, who visited The Mill on Sunday, Feb. 12 at the end of a brief Midwest tour squeezed between trips on the coasts, preceding a 30-day stint in Europe. The ensemble was dressed in black and white, a formal look that fell shy of being serious or pretentious.

The band, which specializes in the fusion of jazz and blues most prominent in the first half of the last century, blended covers and originals with grace and dexterity. The inclusion of covers from an earlier era to contextualize their original work was a brilliant juxtaposition, an excellent snapshot of how music changes subtly over time — or perhaps of how innovative bands can mine the depths of the past and bring it respectfully and responsibly to light.

Davina and the Vagabonds played The Mill on Sunday, Feb. 12. — photo by Garrett Born

With no opening act, the band instantly made themselves at home: band leader Davina Sowers slid onto the piano bench with a smile, told a few jokes, and they began to play a Louie Jordan cover. Needing no encouragement, a range of couples moved onto the dance floor, providing a secondary expression of the music, bringing the songs to life with adroit grace. The dancers mirrored the demographics of the crowd, which ranged in age from college kids to grey-haired patrons whom one suspects had heard the oldest cover songs when they were new. The venue, which allowed for seating and dancing as well as eating and drinking, seemed particularly apt.

Overall, the band excels at squeezing smiles from sorrows: There’s a warmth that flows from Sowers’ banter and extends musically to the brass section — particularly from the expert trumpeting of Zack Lozier. This was particularly apparent in their cover of Ben Harper’s “Another Lonely Day.” While the original mourns in shades of grey, Davina and the Vagabonds turned it into a bright jaunt without obliterating the sadness of the original. Although one couldn’t help but smile, it seemed that the most appropriate expression was a hard won smile that emerged through tears.

That sort of gladness in spite of sadness helped to unlock the tonalities of their music as a whole. It was also incorporated in the trumpet, muted and otherwise, and in the sliding tones of the trombone. While Sowers favored the treble clef on the piano, a gesture to the tonalities of earlier times, it showed how the original songs and sounds featured a similar sort of triumph over moments of war, oppression and despair.

The sound of the band was crisp and clean: The tones of trumpet and trombone slid against each other against the furious movement of Sowers’ keys across the range of the piano. Most of the songs accomplished a triumphant burst of joy, no matter the lyrical content or minor progressions. The performance pointed to reasons to celebrate life within any and every context.

The band is also fun. They whipped out an impromptu version of “Happy Birthday” in response to one patron’s celebration, performed with speed and joy. Sowers has a quick wit (which appears in the lyrics of the original songs), as do the other band members, and their apparent pleasure at playing and being together spread quickly as cheer through the low-lit interior of The Mill.

Even for those (like myself) who aren’t built for dance floors, the joy contained in the notes sparkled with soul. The closing song, “St. James Infirmary,” was a standout: Played at an incredibly fast pace, it exploded with joy and gladness, leaving no space for an encore. I very much hope they return to The Mill at some point in the near future.

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