3rd Coast Music

SUSAN COWSILL
Lighthouse
(Threadhead ****)
More by accident than design, I spent a few years in the 70s working as a roadie, which had its ups and downs, but the high point was definitely getting to work on and off with Fairport Convention, whose permanent crew were good friends and roped me in when they needed an extra pair of hands. However, even without this personal connection, I was always a huge Sandy Denny fan, to me she was, still is, the female singer non pareil, the most wonderful, soulful voice I’ve ever heard, and, like many Denny fans, I’m somewhat protective of her legacy. A particular case in point is, of course, her signature original, Who Knows Where The Time Goes, covers of which instantly raise a red flag. I detested Judy Collins’ squeaky clean version, but most attempts at singing this are simply misguided, Nina Simone, Mary Black, Nanci Griffith, Nana Mouskouri etc let their egos get the better of them, though I’ll make exceptions for Eva Cassidy because, well, she was Eva Cassidy, for God’s sake, she could sing anything, and for Susan Cowsill. The main reason I tried, unsuccessfully, to lay hands on a copy of Just Believe It (Blue Corn, 2005) was that I came across an Internet clip of Cowsill’s version and I’m here to tell you it gave me goosebumps. Just before NotSXSW, publicist Cary Baker (who hosts the annual Conqueroo bash), mentioned that several of his clients were open to playing 3CM Presents, and, as I told him, the one I wanted was Cowsill, because any singer who can impress me by covering Sandy Denny is one I take very, very seriously.

Cowsill actually has some history with Denny, to whose music she was introduced by ex-husband Peter Holsapple when both were in The Continental Drifters. Holsapple was musical director of a 2001 Sandy Denny Tribute Concert at St Ann’s Church, Brooklyn, for which The Continental Drifters were the house band, leading to an EP of Denny and Richard Thompson songs, Listen, Listen (Blue Rose [Germany], 2001). However, if Denny drew me to Cowsill’s solo debut, when she gave me a copy in March, I really wished I’d been able to give it the praise it deserves when it first came out, though, for those of you who do have it, Susan and her husband, ex-Continental Drifters, current Susan Cowsill Band drummer Russ Broussard, have a surprise in store for you. What started out as minor tinkering on one track turned into a full bore stripped down remix of the entire album, which should surface sometime in 2011 and, hopefully, fare better than the ill-fated original.

When Susan’s publicist called to remind her that Just Believe It, the solo album she’d been waiting to make since 1968, when she was the youngest of The Cowsills, and on which she’d spent every last dime, had been released that day, she was in a Lafayette parking lot crying uncontrollably. She had just lost her New Orleans home and all her possessions, including instruments, equipment, hundreds of copies of the CD and T-shirts for its supporting tour, to Hurricane Katrina, and that wasn’t even the worst of it. Her brother Barry was missing, his body not identified until January 2006 (another brother, Billy, died the following month). “The tour and the album were a secondary reality to what we were dealing with, we were just surviving, living in a van, but we had shows booked.” Cobbling together equipment—Jackson Browne sent Cowsill a Dan Electro guitar and a small amp—they met their commitments, but a devastated Cowsill didn’t know if she’d ever make another album. “I wasn’t able to complete any songs, I just couldn’t put one foot in front of another.”

However, eventually Russ persuaded her that “We have to get back on the horse of life,” and setting a goal motivated her into the traumatic process of finishing the songs and recording them. “Just Believe It was well-planned and exciting, Lighthouse is a jazz funeral march, but I can step away now, come out from under the emotional weight of getting through those years.” Lighthouse was made possible by the Threadheads, a Jazz Fest social forum that evolved, post-Katrina, into a fundraising and volunteer benevolent group, whose most recent project is the non-profit Threadhead Records, which helps finance New Orleans musicians’ projects through donations and loans. In Lighthouse, the Threadheads have given us a real winner, recorded, incidentally at Dockside Studios, Maurice, LA, where Bobby Charles cut Timeless (see reviews elsewhere).

Cowsill, with some help from Broussard and pianist Tad Armstrong, came up with ten new songs, of which the eerie standout is ONOLA, an almost five minute hymn to her adopted home (though born in Canton, OH, she identifies herself as a Rhode Islander). It’s a rich topic for which I don’t have enough space, but this song is a moving example of the way NOLA songwriters address the city as if it was a living person rather than a pile of bricks and mortar, and we outsiders somehow understand why. By comparison, Jimmy Webb’s Galveston is just a song about a place. However, the album’s big set piece is another cover, of Barry Cowsill’s River Of Love, on which Susan plays his guitar and is joined by her brothers Bob, Paul and John and John’s wife Victoria (aka Vicki Petersen of The Bangles).
I would not claim, or wish, Susan Cowsill to be the Second Coming of Sandy Denny, she is her own, very remarkable person. However, sadly, Denny is no longer with us but Cowsill will, I sincerely hope, be giving us many more albums as good as this. If nothing else, she now has a permanent invitation to 3CM Presents. JC

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