FEATURE: International Jazz Festival @ Sage Gateshead | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Davina & The Vagabonds made their North East debut at the small but perfectly formed Jumpin’ Hot Jamboree in Easington back in 2013, then stormed the outdoor stage at last year’s SummerTyne Americana Festival. Now they’re bringing their blend of soul, jazz, blues and New Orleans to the Sage as part of the International Jazz Festival. I was curious to find out how Davina Sowers – resident in the Twin Cities after a peripatetic youth – ended up fronting a band so steeped in the NoLa sound and how she found her voice, a tremendous, full-throated, soulful thing that’s rousing or melancholy by turns.

“I actually grew up in a crappy economically depressed town in Pennsylvania. I left when I was 15 and have been on my own since. I travelled the US, living in many different places, absorbing life and music everywhere I went. But I’ve been enveloped in music since I was kid. My momma was a folk singer and pushed music on me since I can remember. Mom was such a huge influence for me. She played a little piano, guitar, and sang all the time. She taught me a little guitar. I think House Of The Rising Sun was the first song she taught me, while shoving me into piano lessons at the age of six. Piano stuck. So did singing. I was an odd child and teenager. I think music was really my only refuge from life.” Key influences on Davina’s vocals also bear her mother’s stamp too. “It was a lot of female folk like Melanie, Judy Collins, etc. Then it was English blues – Led Zeppelin, the Stones. I think the Beatles and the Mamas And Papas taught me how to harmonize. Then I dabbled in Aretha Franklin, Etta James, Billie, and Ella. I think now, in my career, it’s age, and creativity. Life influences my voice now more than anything else.”

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“I was an odd child and teenager. I think music was really my only refuge from life”

Nobody who saw the Vagabonds’ rendition of Etta James’ I’d Rather Go Blind at SummerTyne last year could have remained unmoved by Sowers’ heartbreaking performance, but she’s actually a tremendously joyful, charismatic performer, given to an arched eyebrow or a camp flourish (“it’s second nature – so much so, I embarrass myself sometimes”). She also cuts a striking figure onstage, all vintage glamour and conspicuous ink. Given that the jazz world can be quite a conservative place these days (ironic given its origins), does she ever get any static for her appearance? The ink, in particular? “Nah, or if I do I didn’t hear them, or I’m not listening. I would just laugh if there was an issue. Usually people might judge before they hear the band and then we play and they shut it and enjoy the show. Music breaks barriers.”

I couldn’t help wondering how Sowers felt two years ago when her and the band rocked up at a small barn on a farm next to a former pit village for the Jamboree – surely not their normal sort of gig? “I remember the band in the van trying to find it, driving down a goat path, thinking ‘Someone is trying to murder us and lure us into a pit of some sort’. It was SUCH an amazing time though. I loved it out there.”

Davina & The Vagabonds play Sage Gateshead on Sunday 12th April.



This year’s Gateshead International Jazz Festival – the eleventh – sees the Sage cram nearly 30 performances and events across its three days, covering everything from a jazz vs opera soundclash to a seminar in sustainability in jazz. Here are some of the highlights:

Stan Tracey’s Under Milk Wood (Friday 10th)

A landmark in British jazz, the late Stan Tracey’s setting of the Dylan Thomas play is 50 years old this year and will be performed here by a quartet that includes regular Tracey collaborators and Bobby Wellins, the saxophonist who played on the original recording.

David Sanborn Band plus John Scofield and Jon Cleary (Friday 10th)

Sanborn is one of contemporary jazz’s best loved saxophonists and current form suggests the show will be a return to the funky fusion style that made his name.

Ruby Turner and The James Taylor Quartet (Saturday 11th)

Perhaps the most user-friendly billing of this year’s festival is Saturday’s double header of Jamaican-born UK soul veteran Ruby Turner (established solo artist, acclaimed backing singer and Jools Holland regular) with The James Taylor Quarter, mainstays of the acid jazz scene and the very definition of cool.

Jazz vs Opera – a Tenor Battle: Håkon Kornstad (Saturday 11th)

An intriguing prospect that sees Norwegian Kornstad pull together his saxophone chops with his recent rebirth as an operatic tenor.

The Necks (Saturday 11th)

Surely the most enticing booking of all is Aussie improv trio The Necks, a genuinely remarkable outfit equally at home at All Tomorrow’s Parties as an experimental arts festival. Each performance is a unique, room-specific improvised piece that is always as hypnotising as it is dynamic.

Loose Tubes (Sunday 12th)

Few ensembles can rival Loose Tubes for their impact on the British jazz scene or as a hotbed of new talent. After a quarter-century hiatus, the 21-strong band are back and promising a blend of much-loved Loose Tubes classics and some new commissions.

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