Davina & the Vagabonds,
Black Cloud
(Roustabout, 2011)

Opening the package in which this CD arrived, I presumed I was about to be acquainted with yet another of the many current r&b bands -- largely populated by roots-conscious white rock musicians -- plying the blues circuit. In my experience some are decent, some are better than that and some are merely pointless re-creations of a music more convincingly done the first time. It's not a genre or an approach to which I'm automatically drawn, in any event. Then, scanning the liner material, I happened to notice that Davina & the Vagabonds don't have a guitar player. I didn't exactly rub my eyes in disbelief, but I may as well have. Then I got to wondering about that name. When was the last time you heard somebody talk about "vagabonds"?

It turns out that Black Cloud is a ridiculously entertaining record, shamelessly retro without ever giving off the feeling that it is. The four-member Vagabonds echo the sounds of century-old New Orleans bands -- trumpet, trombone, drums and upright bass -- and pianist/vocalist/composer Davina Sowers, she of extraordinarily deep but never ill-used pipes, contributes songs defined, albeit idiosyncratically, by the jazz-inflected blues, gospel, pop and swing of another era. It speaks to the band's remarkable gifts that that these are done with such verve that they seem fresh, almost shockingly original. Then of course, good music-making is its own excuse, and the amount of good music-making here will have your ears ringing ecstatically.

Sowers's songs are something like ones you might have heard on jazz 78s from the 1920s (which is also where "vagabonds," a word otherwise last spoken decades ago, comes from) except with something of a 21st-century sensibility. The closest thing to a guitar here is the uncredited ukulele that accompanies the more introspective than usual "Bee Sting," also one highlight on a disc that seems crowded with them. Another noteworthy cut is an affecting, lovingly performed gospel original, "Carry Him with You," which deserves to be widely known and sung.

I am told that Davina & the Vagabonds, who hail from the Twin Cities, need to be seen live to be fully appreciated. I look forward to that opportunity. Meantime, Black Cloud is here, and the sky is clear, courtesy of this joyous, not-just-another blues band.

music review by
Jerome Clark

30 July 2011

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