Davina and The Vagabonds return to the 57th annual Monterey Jazz Festival
Imagine a combination of Lucille Ball and Louis Prima—a frenetic, deeply humorous soul who is part tightly synchronized bandleader, part devastating front woman—and you get pianist and singer-songwriter Davina Sowers. As boss of Davina and the Vagabonds, Sowers runs her shows with a captivating ferocity that began in her youth: she grew up loving the idea of showmanship, training her sights on acts like Fats Waller, Louis Armstrong, and later, Louis Prima.
“I’m a ham, and I want people to be on the edge of their seats,” Sowers tells GT from the road. “I’m on the edge of my seat every show, whether it’s in Monterey, or some dive in the middle of Iowa. People are paying for the music, but they also want a show. It’s boring to watch melancholy performers. Our goal is to make people happy.”
When Davina and the Vagabonds played the Monterey Jazz Festival last year, they blew the audience away—so much so that Monterey Jazz Festival curator Tim Jackson invited them back this year, as headliners.
“I tried to talk him out of it,” jokes Sowers, who is currently touring her way across the country in a 16-passenger van with trumpeter Daniel Eikmeier, trombonist Ben Link, drummer Connor McRae and upright bassist Andrew Burns. Seriously though, she says, “we are head over heels.”
The music of Davina and the Vagabonds yearns for national recognition, and this year they will share the bill with acts like Grammy winner Gary Clark Jr. and Southern soul legend Booker T. Jones.
“We are a multi-generational band. Put us in front of all different kinds of people, with all different kinds of backgrounds and ages, and, unless everyone is lying, they seem to enjoy us,” says Sowers. This wide appeal is partly because their high-energy performance is at once highly volatile and also highly emotional. “We throw down, and it might be throwing down in a different way than a punk rock band, but our music is like punk rock of the 1920s.”
Switching between swing, ragtime, New Orleans jazz, blues and gospel, Sowers doesn’t worry about losing her audience along the way. “There is a younger wave coming up behind us that is more interested in not just straight-ahead or swing, but is OK with having a mash-up,” says Sowers. “Some people get trapped by their own tastes, but the younger generation is more accustomed to hearing everything all at once.”
Even in the studio, Davina and the Vagabonds are shooting for gold. Take the eponymous title track off her latest release, Sunshine. The track simmers, and it’s difficult not to compare her soulful vocals to Amy Winehouse. Sowers’ easy keyboard confessions bring the listener into the music, and the prowess of the Vagabonds is enrapturing listeners across the planet.
Davina and the Vagabonds’ first three albums were recorded in a studio, while the fourth was a live recording. “That was the easiest process for me,” says Sowers. “We recorded six shows and then we just picked the best. That was cake.” For Sunshine, the band went into a legitimate studio in Minneapolis and recorded on tape, which is what sold Sowers on choosing that studio.
“The process is gut-wrenching for me,” Sowers admits. “There was a graph at the studio that charts a musician’s process in the studio. There’s a huge peak, where you feel on top of the world. The next minute it plummets, and you want to scrap everything. Luckily, the guys in my band are really great at what they do, and they made it easy on me. I produced the album and I’m not a fan of going into the studio, but now that it’s over, I’m proud of it. When the project is done, I will not listen to it for at least a month. I’m my own worst critic.”
Despite rave reviews, Sowers assures the band is pretty humble with all the accolades. When somebody after a show says, “You guys were great,” Sowers still doesn’t really believe them. “I think we are down-to-earth people. I don’t think we are ‘there’ yet, and we do have forms of success, but I don’t think we will ever turn into rotten people,” says Sowers. “We are happy when we ask for water and get it. We live in the Midwest, where we are considered really nice people. Each one of us has had a big glass of humility handed to us at one point in our lives, so we can be grounded.”
Unlike James Brown, Sowers will not fine her band if they make a mistake. With more than a hundred gigs a year, Sowers knows her band has the compositions ingrained in their psyche and the chops to bring her tunes to life. “Each band member is a strong individual, and you can really pick out each person’s personality on stage,” says Sowers. “So, I don’t tell them how to be and how to act, but our shit is arranged. I’m a huge fan of arrangements, and when we stop, we stop. I don’t want anyone rubbing one out on stage. Tons of bands are like that, and I think it’s gross. It’s important to be crisp and spot-on, and I think that’s what blows people’s minds. But if you were to come to five of our shows, five days in a row, you will hear little changes here and there—but man, we still know when to stop.”
Davina and The Vagabonds play the Monterey Jazz Festival on Saturday, Sept. 20 on the Arena Main Stage at 1 p.m. and at the Garden Stage at 2:30 p.m. The Monterey Jazz Festival runs Sept. 19-21. www.montereyjazzfestival.org. PHOTO: Davina and the Vagabonds are touring their way across the country to play the Monterey Jazz Festival’s main stage.CHRISTIE WILLIAMS