Review by Matthew Hocter
For the majority of the last decade, I called São Paulo in Brazil home. I reference this because throughout my time there, I went through so many cycles of learning and understanding on pretty much everything life had to offer, but none more important than that of my continued musical education.
Music was everywhere in Brazil. From the train to work, to the man on the corner to the old lady in a supermarket singing Brazilian folk songs. Everywhere I went, I was surrounded, immersed and swimming in the joys of all that music has to offer. One day after an incredibly complicated situation, I turned to the internet for a deep dive into new music. This particular day, I needed something to cure my broken heart. Shattered into a million pieces, something that only Etta James could fix, even it was just for a minute.
I found Etta and I listened to her. A lot. But I also stumbled across a reinterpretation of one her most recognized songs, “I’d Rather Go Blind.” As I hesitantly clicked play on YouTube, within seconds I was transfixed on what was playing in front of me. A young woman playing the piano, joined by a quartet of band members, belting out the blues in a way that touched every single crevice and corner of my heart. I cried with the pain of loss, but I also cried with the healing comfort that only music can provide.
That young lady was Davina and the quartet were The Vagabonds. From that day on, weeks and days passed and not a single day went by that one of their songs was not put on rotation. That was back in mid 2013 and this past weekend, nearly ten years after first discovering them by chance and sorrow, I got to witness them live, this time with a full heart and a long awaited yearning to see them live finally coming to fruition.
With The Famous Spiegeltent’s glorious return to Adelaide, it seemed only fitting that lead singer and namesake of the group, Davina Sowers reminisced over performing in the very same Spiegeltent for 10 nights at the Edinburgh festival some years ago. A homecoming of sorts in a completely new city. A juxtaposition if there ever was one.
Something that instantly catches my eye, is Sowers lack of inhibition as she takes to the keys and her breath hits the microphone. A joyous display of emotion coupled with an exuberant playfulness as her face twists and turns with each new key being played, this is live music in its finest form.
As Sowers and her Vagabonds move in and out of the sounds of big band, swing and lashings of New Orlean jazz, its songs like “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby,” where Sowers vocal prowess and mastering shine their brightest. At times, I found myself closing my eyes and trying to block the visuals out, giving way to being transported back to the 40’s or 50’s. And that voice, Sowers voice, with an ever so gentle rasp, channelled the likes of Ella and Etta, with the latter culminating in that aforementioned live version of “I’d Rather Go Blind,” leaving not one jaw firmly planted on the floor. Mesmerizing doesn’t even begin to do that level of artistry any justice.
The Vagabonds had their moments in the spotlight too. None more spectacular than when the quartet performed Fats Wallers “Louisiana Fairy Tale.” As Sowers husband, Zack Lozier took turns at both the trumpet and vocals, along with fellow band members Matt Hanzelka (Trombone), Connor McRae Hammergren on the drums and Andrew Foreman on the Upright Bass. To use the word “compliment” in the way of support seems almost criminal as each musician brought a clear, strong and vital element to all that was being performed.
Davina and The Vagabonds was most definitely not Cabaret, something the singer openly admitted to having no knowledge of - and that was perfectly fine. What they were and are, are five incredibly talented musicians that not only brought the sounds of New Orleans, Blues and Jazz to a little city on the other side of the world called Adelaide, but they elevated the festival in a way that few could or can manage to do - Cabaret or not.
The best, most unexpected act of The Adelaide Cabaret Festival in 2022.