Blue Guitar Club hosts category-defying Davina & the Vagabonds at Arroyo Seco Golf Course
The heart of Davina & the Vagabonds’ feel-good music is piano-pounding frontwoman Davina Sowers’ voice: knowing yet girlish, earthy yet effervescent. Their visuals are almost as compelling, thanks to the self-described thrift store girl’s elegant wardrobe, which instantly signals her music’s spirited retro vibe.
“I always beckoned back to different eras when I was a kid,” the Twin Cities native explains. “My mom was very stylish and extremely eccentric. I grew up in a very turn-of-the-century home, with turn-of-the-century music. My adopted father called a couch a davenport; he was born in 1902. He was my mom’s fourth husband, and that’s who I considered my father, who raised me. It does go hand-in-hand with the music.
“I think it’s important to look good when you’re onstage. … I’m not much of a girly-girl; I can throw down with the best of them. But for some reason it’s always been really important to me to show my individuality through my clothes. I’ve always been a fashion victim — I was the weirdo kid who wore bowling shoes to school.”
Her music’s equally distinctive. There’s no guitar in her sharp-suited band; just piano, standup bass, trombone, trumpet and drums. The Vagabonds play a zesty gumbo of blues, jazz and pop that defies easy categorization but is deeply rooted in New Orleans and early 20th-century jazz graced with Billie Holiday-style “tension notes.”
“I don’t have an elevator pitch,” Sowers acknowledges. “People ask, ‘What’s your genre?’ I’m like, ‘I don’t know, you tell me.’ … I love the jauntiness and the sassiness of the 1920s, the tongue-in-cheek of the ’30s and ’40s, and the complexity of the big band feel of the ’40s. But I do other stuff too.”
Her more contemporary-sounding pop tunes — such as the title track of her 2014 album “Sunshine” — are influenced by her “huge” admiration for songwriting-focused artists like Ryan Adams, Bauhaus, Father John Misty, Bon Iver and My Morning Jacket. Emotionally direct renderings of Fats Waller and Patty Griffin serve as creative touchstones to “Sunshine”; last year’s live set “Nicollet and Tenth” is grounded by loamy blues and gospel chestnuts.
Such eclecticism’s artistically satisfying, but presents marketing challenges. The steadily touring Vagabonds “never found massive amounts of kinship” with either the blues or jazz communities, Sowers says, so she was relieved to check a significant item off her bucket list when she recently signed with Americana-focused Red House Records. (“It will be my first time with a team of people behind me.”) They just recorded six tracks for a forthcoming album, and the label frees at least some of her time to focus on making music.
“As long as the music is honest — that’s a huge thing for me. It doesn’t matter what era it comes from, as long as somehow I can relate and it is 100 percent honest.”
Blue Guitar Club hosts Davina & the Vagabonds at Arroyo Seco Golf Course, 1055 Lohman Lane, South Pasadena, 7:30 p.m. Thursday, March 9; $15/$10. Info: Blueguitar.club, Davinaandthevagabonds.com