Jazz, jazz and MORE jazz!

Jill Fisher

Erin Aldridge and Skarlett Woods perform at the Third Annual Duluth Songwriter Showcase. Photo by Michael Anderson.

It was a fun and fabulous time at the West Theatre last Thursday, March 21, with Davina and the Vagabonds, up from the Twin Cities, leading the way. Clearly this band has a big following as the venue was sold out. I heard that folks from as far away as Thunder Bay, Ontario, traveled to Duluth to attend the concert.

It was only the second time I had the pleasure of hearing the band; the first time was at Reader Fest in July 2022 at Bayfront Festival Park as part of this publication’s 25th anniversary celebration. While I did not write a full review of that event, I did note in my subsequent column that Davina and the Vagabonds was the headlining act and that they had a hot New Orleans (nee Dixieland) jazz style.  

The band on this evening proved to be just as hot and sassy as they were at that Bayfront appearance. However, I’m not sure that all the same musicians made up the “Vagabonds” this time. The two mainstays besides Davina Sowers herself (lead vocals, keyboards, melodica) are Zee Lozier (trumpet, vocals) and Conner McRae Hammergren (drums, vocals).

The other two members filling out the group were Matt Hanselk (trombone) and Graydon Peterson (upright bass), who alternate with other musicians at different gigs.

The band has garnered national attention due to its performances at festivals throughout this country, Canada, the UK and Europe, not to mention the Rolling Stone magazine’s naming the band’s, “I Can’t Believe I Let You Go” as one of the 10 best Americana songs of 2019.  

Davina & The Vagabonds (Photo by Jill Fisher)

Davina, who was attired in a sparkly floor-length flouncy black gown and topped by a tiara, received a rousing welcome when she took the stage and her place behind the keyboards to begin the performance. She has an arresting stage presence that commands attention. First up was a rousing rendition of the 1920 tune, “When My Sugar Walks Down the Street (All the Little Birdies Go Tweet-Tweet-Tweet).” I, for one, love this early jazz genre, so was anticipating more of the same.

The second number, “Pocket” was a Davina original from the band’s 2011 album, Black Cloud. The lyrics were somewhat suggestive (which depend upon where one’s head is at, according to Davina when she introduced the tune) and the tempo upbeat, right in line with the Roaring 20s vibe the band began with.

Delving deeper into the 1920s sound, Hammergrenn pulled out a megaphone to sing into on “Louisiana Fairytale” (ala Rudy Vallée). Another recently released original single followed (I didn’t catch the title and the band did not use a playlist) then a cover of Buddy Holly’s “Every Day” giving it a jazzy twist.  

When Davina began her cover of the sassy Aretha Franklin tune, ”Dr. Feelgood (Love Is A Serious Business)” someone in the audience coughed, causing her to stop mid-song to offer the person a lozenge or water! The audience was amused. Not to worry though, she picked up where she left off with her strong projection and gutsy singing voice that took on the qualities of the late Janis Joplin.

Davina (Photo by Jill Fisher)

Then it was onto a Los Lobos tune with Davina playing a melodica (a reed instrument with a keyboard, which I first became acquainted with during the Steel Wheels concert a few weeks ago). The band’s cover of Dr. John’s “Down in New Orleans” was another hot one made for dancing. The last song before the intermission was “FML (Find My Love),” a lovely ballad with a little bite.  

The second set was every bit as energetic and frisky as the first, starting with the Louis Jordan tune “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby?” from 1943. Covers of more recent compositions followed – Chuck Berry’s “Return to Memphis,” John Prine’s “Please Don’t Bury Me” and another original by Davina, which had a calypso beat. But it was the early jazz stuff that really got the place jumpin’.

Lozier took the lead vocal on “Four or Five Times,” a 1941 song recorded by Sister Rosetta Tharpe with Lucky Millinder and his Orchestra. “Just Another Lonely Day” was a sad song set to a driving beat. Lozier called for audience participation as he counted out “1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4 and 5,” and the audience complied. “Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie” by Clarence Smith as recorded by Hugo Montenegro was the tune that really showed Davina’s chops as a pianist.

Concluding their second set was the feisty “Start Running” from the band’s 2011 Black Cloud album, a song that warns a rival about going after her man. For the requisite encore, the group grooved to the UK group Foundation’s 1968 tune, “Build Me Up Buttercup.” I bet many in the audience exited the West with that tune playing in their heads.  

When one is in the mood for jazz, it’s good to know that it gets presented in various ways and styles. That was the case the next evening when I went my second time to Weber Music Hall to hear the UMD Vocal Jazz Spring Concert.

Two groups, the 18-member Chill Factor under the direction of Christopher Ferttig and the slightly smaller 14-member group, Lake Effect directed by Ryan Deignan, presented short sets of four and five numbers, respectively.

Chill Factor’s “A Foggy Day” by George Gershwin, “The Shadow of Your Smile” by Johnny Mandel, “Cry Me A River” by Arthur Hamilton and “Caravan” by Duke Ellington were all quite enjoyable. Several students were featured as soloists and I found Brooke Baumeister to be especially emotive in “Cry Me A River.”  

The Lake Effect group took on more current tunes beginning with “Little Did I Dream” by Dave Frishberg, first released in 2001. Alicia Keys’ “If I Ain’t Got You” (2001) and “American Tune” by Paul Simon (1973) received jazzy interpretations and was followed by the jazz standard “Spain” by Chick Corea (1971). Both groups came together to perform the sentimental “I’ll Be Seeing You” by Sammy Fain and Irving Kahal (1938) to end the concert.

All the singers deserve congratulations on a short and very sweet musical exposition. It will be interesting to see where many of these talented young adults are headed in the years ahead.  

On Saturday, March 23, the Third Annual Duluth Songwriter Showcase hosted by Danny Frank and the Smoky Gold was held, once again, at the Sacred Heart Music Center. The format was the same as last year’s event  with this year’s three local songwriters – Hannah Rey, Shane Nelson and Skarlett Woods – featured in the first half of the concert.

Duluth Songwriters Showcase (Photo by Michael Anderson)

Smoky Gold kicked off the show with “If It Hadn’t Been For Love” by Chris Stapleton, member of the Steeldrivers band. Erin Aldridge introduced Rey, whom she had played with as a part of a DSSO “Bridge Session” back in July 2022. Rey has a gorgeous voice with a wide range, perfect pitch and powerful projection. She sang five original songs, one with the working title “Dream Death”—a bit dark but no less enjoyable for that.  

Second up was a crowd favorite, Nelson, who Frank introduced by recalling that Misisipi Mike told him that Shane is the best guitar player in the Twin Ports. Nelson sang his song “Mason Lowe” at the request of an audience member who knew he had won the Duluth Dylan Fest songwriting competition with this composition back in 2021. His more recent “Favorite People” was an ode to the characteristics shared by those folks he holds dear. It was very touching.  

Finishing out the first set was Woods with her own four original tunes: “Close To You (Braver These Days),” “Minnesota Farm Girl”, “You and I (Santa Cruz, CA)” and “Me I Me Me.” Woods’ lyrics are intricate and introspective, the melodies complex and jazzy. Her voice is remarkably clear and compelling. Aldridge on her violin accompanied Woods on this last number. The audience was especially appreciative.  

After an intermission, Danny Frank and the Smoky Gold (Harrison Olk on banjo, Erin on fiddle, and Smokin’ Joe Scarpellino on bass) came back to perform 13 of its own songs. Danny’s wife Angie joined the group for two of them: “Look Up” and “Down by the Water.” This band really amps up the energy with most of their songs spurring some of us to dance. The song “Shakin the Dust” that referenced a foggy river, was a captivating ballad. “Penny’s Bone” and “One More Try” are separate songs that the band blends together.

One of the special qualities of this group is its harmonies, which we got to fully appreciate during this presentation.   The Songwriter Showcase’s grand finale brought all the performing musicians together to sing Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released” with the audience enthusiastically chiming in.  

Blues Jam at The Flame

One last mention of an event that occurred earlier in the week: the newly initiated Blues Jam at the Flame Nightclub. This jam takes place Wednesdays from 6-9 pm. I was so pleased to see several professional musicians come together to explore the blues. Among them this past week were vocalist Darryl Scott (organizer); Mel Sando on electric guitar; Karen Draeger, vocalist and multi-instrumentalist with the band Milkbone; Elliot Harris, drummer with Boku Frequency; drummer Ian Hopp and bass guitarist Manny Eisele both with the Duluth Transit Authority; fiddler Bonnie Kaye and Cole Forcier. It was a rockin’ jam that more people should check out if they are at all interested in the blues.  

Upcoming: Now that I’m clued into events at Weber Music Hall on the UMD campus, I am looking forward to hearing the South African Choir, 29:11 International Exchange, on Monday, April 1 at 7:30 pm there. Another gig I will be sure to get to this coming weekend is Virgil Caine at the Powerhouse in Proctor. Show starts at 8. There will be dancing—see you there!