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I slept over the problem, tried this first thing in the morning and it worked :)...

If you look at the failed libvirt.xml file above, the device /dev/vdb is listed before /dev/vda. I suspected if for some reason the kernel is using /dev/vdb as the root filesystem (which will fail ofcourse). I reversed the order and listed /dev/vda before /dev/vdb, (destroyed, undefine and define the new libvirt.xml) and restarted the instance. It worked this time.

Now the problem is that libvirt.xml is generated automatically by Openstack compute. As a workaround I can try to manipulate the order in which I create block device mappings, but this would be a hack at best. This looks like a KVM bug to me. Any insight would be helpful.