Davina and the Vagabonds

(Adelaide Cabaret Festival, 11 June, 2022)

[Davina and the Vagabonds, late to town thanks to post-Covid chaos in international flights, appeared at the Cabaret Festival on Saturday night, drawing from the past 100 years of American music, from Fats Domino and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band to Aretha Franklin and Tom Waits. Reportedly, Davina has been compared to Etta James, Amy Winehouse, Janis Joplin, Billie Holiday and Betty Boop, but in order to verify, The Varnished Culture had 2 guest reviewers in attendance who know a thing or three about past and contemporary music in this Dawning Age of Aquarius. Their keen impressions, in two separate pieces, appear below.]

Raymond G, the Accidental Reviewer

It’s mid-June; 12 degrees C, it’s dark; it’s drizzling; and so it is that we escape from over two years of COVID captivity and venture forth into the night to catch the free bus to culture (Seniors’ Card; didn’t have one of them pre-COVID!).  Upon arrival at the Speigeltent Plaza, it became clear that pandemic paranoia had indeed changed the concert going world; $12 for a plastic thimble of seriously average wine; “open” fires enclosed by security fences; and two commando-like security guards to add the logs (we thought we were in the Ukraine; have another thimble!). But stay calm and think of Shanghai, we are here to see Davina and her Vagabonds.

Let us try and paint the musical picture; there is, of course, Davina, spangling from the piano; a skilled drummer who is on occasion permitted to sing (very well); a double bassist who is not permitted to sing! and two excellent brass players; trombone and trumpet. But be under no illusion, Davina is in control; don’t get it wrong!  And so it’s game on and they don’t. With an early and magnificent rendition of Commander Cody’s Four or Five Times, the crowd was electrified. The performance and production is joyous. And it doesn’t stop. Another highlight is the channelling by Davina of the late, great, Etta James which was inspired. The show was 75 minutes of musical happiness and joy. Not only for the audience but, we apprehend, also for the super slick band and Davina. So good, I couldn’t leave my seat to secure another thimble ($12 saved!)

Perhaps the best illustration of how good the performance was, is to reveal that, so overwhelmed were we by positivity oozing from the experience, that we lashed out and caught a taxi home (no Senior’s Card discount!).

The Critical Critic

Firstly, I must confess, I’ve lost some of my mojo when it comes to attending Adelaide’s many festivals. It just seems to me that over the years they have become more about the Artistic Directors, their egos and their PR machines, ticket sales and revenue (don’t get me started on the cost of tickets and booking fees), and the ‘big names’ rather than providing an opportunity for the average punter to take a risk and see an ‘unknown’ act and simply go along for the ride. Heavens, I remember when you could afford to see several such acts in one night and still have change for a late night snack at the pie cart.

Given all the above, I was somewhat reluctant to leave the warmth of home on a cold winters’ night but it wasn’t long before my somewhat cynical pre-judgement was called into question and my thoughts on the whole festival experience may have changed…

I know a review should be about the artistes involved, but I also believe the atmosphere plays a part in whether your experience is memorable or not. So here goes.
On arriving at the Festival Plaza (will the construction ever end), we were warmly welcomed, literally, by several fire pits well ablaze and smoking hot. We quickly found seats by the fire and enjoyed the cosy company of locals and interstate visitors who were not seeing a show but were there to soak up said atmosphere. And it set the scene perfectly. A few jokes concerning the ‘big brother’ drone overhead, the security guards turned stokers (we reckoned they must have done the fire-making course 101 at TAFE and were clearly enjoying their new authority), and it was time to enter the Speigeltent.

As usual, the audience was crammed in like sardines and there seemed to be an abundance of smoke/dry ice (clearly smoke is a theme at this year’s Cabaret Festival). We found two seats together, introduced ourselves to our ‘close’ neighbours, and prepared ourselves to be entertained.  And entertained we were. Davina and the Vagabonds were a sleek operation. The quintet of lead vocalist, (Davina Sowers), trumpet player and occasional vocalist Zack Lozier, trombonist Steve Rogers, double bassist Andrew Foreman and drummer Connor “Chops” McRae Hammerson) were definitely a winning combo. Their musicianship was faultless, the ‘adlibs’/’patter’ well-rehearsed and ‘looks to the audience’ carefully choreographed, resulting in an hour and a quarter of sheer pleasure.

Working their way through a repertoire of golden oldies including fabulous ditties from Louis Jordan and Ella Fitzgerald intertwined with witty originals written by Davina herself, the time sped by far too quickly. A whirlwind journey through blues, jazz, and a whole lot more, and with Davina’s voice sounding like Ella meets Etta meets Amy meets Judy meets that wild girl who’s always the life and soul of every party, you couldn’t help but whoop it up whenever the opportunity arose.

Davina herself is pure sass, ably supported by the swagger of her vagabonds. She is Minnesota sunshine personified; She is a party girl, and her vibrant vagabonds were individually and collectively guests you’d insist come to the party too. I’d sure like to ‘partay’ with her. And I didn’t expect to be saying that as I opened my front door to head out.

[Editor’s note: Thanks RG and CC – looks like this show is a hit. My own impression is that the Festival security, whilst plentiful, was unobtrusive and respectful, and personally, I’d pay extra to a man serving drinks in the Festival Plaza Garden, out in the winter cold!!!]


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