Take a step back 80 years and 800 miles east and you’ll land in Davina territory.
Davina is the sassy blues woman fronting the Vagabonds. The Minneapolis-based, five-piece band is returning to Billings for a Saturday night show at Bones Brewing after stealing the thunder from the main stage acts at Magic City Blues in 2011.
Davina Sowers grew up listening to her parents' vinyl collection on the Victrola, with everything from Simon and Garfunkel and Led Zeppelin to World War II-era classics like “Ain’t She Sweet.” Sowers learned to wrap her throaty vocals around everything she sang, incorporating blues, jazz, Dixieland and Ragtime into her originals and covers by Hoagy Carmichael and Trampled by Turtles. She’s all red lipstick, tattoos and '40s-style dresses on the outside. But somewhere down deep, Etta James is hiding right beside Amy Winehouse and Adele.
When Sowers performed, bopping up and down at her piano on the Stillwater Stage at Magic City Blues, several hundred people, some jumping up and down or jitterbugging down front, shouted for more. She is joined on stage by two exceptional horn players, Dan Eikmeier on trumpet and Ben Link on trombone; stand-up bass player Michael Carvale; and drummer Alec Tackmann. What you won't see is a guitar.
“We’re a party band — not cheeky, but we make a lot of noise for a no-guitar blues band,” Sowers said in a phone interview.
Sowers remembered the show as one of the highlights of her 2011 tour and Billings as a hip town that she’s eager to play again this week.
“It was so much fun,” she said. “Something happened in Billings. I still have photos from it. People are stoic in the Midwest and in Poland, anything can happen. But people know how to get down in Billings.”
Sowers grew up in Key West, Fla., learning piano at the age of 6, later studying music composition in college and working as a piano teacher. Eventually, she turned to busking on Duvall Street.
“I could have worked in a lot of venues, but I didn’t conform to Jimmy Buffett covers,” Sowers said. “I couldn’t lug my piano around Duvall Street, and being a music composition major didn’t really help. I really threw myself to the wolves.”
As her story goes, one day she stepped out of a venue and bumped into a handsome man wearing a full suit in Florida, a rarity in the sticky humidity of Key West.
“We fell in love, and I arrived in Minnesota with him two weeks later,” Sowers said.
Sowers wrote her first composition about the experience, “Finally Home.” She now plays 300 dates a year, often at blues festivals like the Sighisoara Blues Festival in Romania and the Thunder Bay Blues Festival in Canada. She's shared the stage with Pinetop Perkins, Aaron Neville and Los Lobos and released four albums.
Sowers said when she writes songs, she enters her studio with a phrase in her head and a melody on her lips. She develops stories around the phrases and grows the melody as she works at her favorite piano, a survivor like Sowers because it fell off a truck and didn’t crumble into pieces.
Her band was culled from musician friends that "add their love of music to each song."
"We work really hard and we're tight as a band. The guys say they are just trying to keep up with me. But sometimes, someone will play such a great solo, I forget to sing because I'm just listening to them."