Stop the presses, there’s a new bitch in town. Davina Sowers combines Bessie Smith [1894-1937], Etta James [1938-2012] and Amy Winehouse [1983-2011] with a touch of Aretha. Her attitude and vocal chops scream “balls” while her songwriting and onstage performance scream “artist.” Obviously, she’s learned her lessons well as only a true dyed-in-the-wool musicologist would. The band, from Minneapolis, Davina & The Vagabonds, is a rock ’em sock ’em fighting robot of a machine fit to swoon over, drink to, dance to, make love to, and, ultimately, revere like a religious experience.
Sunshine (Roustabout) has excited my soul more than any album this year. The minute this new Goddess Of Song opened her mouth, I stopped what I was doing and stood there stock still seeing where she’d go. It was the opening title cut which teases at first with an old-blues megaphone of scratchy primitive recording technique until the band plummets in for their futuristic take on the blues. But this ain’t a blues band, got that?
Recorded in analog like the great classics of my ‘50s and ‘60s youth, the 12 songs circuitously meander through a ravaged road of bumps and gullies held together by THAT VOICE. Sure, the band kicks like an angry mule, and the satisfying blend of trumpet, trombone, drums and percussion, upright bass, sousaphone, vibes and clarinet (no guitars!) augments Davina’s piano and Fender Rhodes keyboard.
Obviously, they got that New Orleans second-line thing down pat (“Red Shoes”). “Away From Me,” her big soul ballad, made the hairs in my ears and nose stand up. Radio would do well to latch on to “Fizzle Out.” “I Really Try To Be Good” is a minor-key rumba. “Throw It To The Wolves For Love” is swing, daddyo, swing. Her balls come in when she dares cover Fats Waller [1904-1943] and actually improves upon his “You Must Be Losing Your Mind.” She does some Aretha too as she almost equals the Queen Of Soul’s cover of the 1962 Lou Rawls hit “I’d Rather Drink Muddy Water.” Then, just to confound, she nails Patty Griffin’s “Heavenly Day” and updates her own “Under Lock And Key” from her 2007 out-of-print album of the same name.
Averaging almost 300 shows a year, this is a workhorse of a band, having already played in 38 states and nine countries. The last album, Black Cloud (2011), as promising as it was, in no way prepares one for this total Sunshine onslaught.
Nalani & Sarina share their Lessons Learned (iTunes) on CD prior to their big-time Sept. 10 Bitter End show in New York City. Harmonizing like angels, composing like Joni, adorable as legality will permit (they’re 21), these twins have that special “it” factor way beyond their obvious gorgeousness. If their Philippine blood makes ‘em look exotic, their blue-eyed soul-folk Lilith approach could make ‘em Hall & Oates with estrogen. The Bitter End show will have guest bassist Will Lee who promises to bring some other NYC heavyweights to the party. Lee is a self-professed “super-fan” of these girls and most likely has a crush on both of ‘em as I already do not even having met ‘em yet. Sam Moore is also a fan, the venerated soul-master having already had them onstage at a recent gig. Considering their musicianship (they play piano and guitar, sing like angels and wrote all 14 songs on Lessons Learned), their sweet swaying rhythmic thrust (the band Will Lee put together for this project is filled with master musicians Tommy Mandel, Leni Stern, Greg Drew, Joe Bonadio and Bones Malone) and their astonishing level of composition, we may be looking at the “next big thing.”