Susan Cowsill's Just Believe It was officially released the same day Katrina hit New Orleans. Cowsill's voice sounded like tragedy, loss, hope, and revenge - in the same song. Her hushed articulation of the word "sin" could stop you in your tracks. The way she sang the line "I can smell the sugar in the air" brought the dance, and her simple plea, "I don't wanna leave this world," smiled through tears of joy. The latter song, written for an older relative who was looking wistfully yet defiantly at the prospect of death, revealed Cowsill's roots in her family band from the 1960s, a band that had a huge single, "Hair." The Cowsills also recorded the eerie, unforgettable "The Rain, the Park, and Other Things," a song that evoked the central image of the time, the flower child. "I love the flower girl," they sang. "Flowers in her hair ... Flowers everywhere." Susan, the youngest of the singing family, literally was that flower girl, the symbol of the 1960s' embrace of nature as a saving grace, of "flower power" as a quixotic antidote to the horrors of the Vietnam War. That pensive moan she plied on Just Believe It carried a sense of that lost possibilities, grief, and postresignation defiance.
That adult Cowsill was already a cult legend for her amazing vocal collaboration with once and future Bangles member Vicky Peterson in the Continental Drifters. The battle of the sexes that took place within the Drifters had people calling them the Fleetwood Mac of New Orleans, but it also gave Cowsill great material. "Talkin'," an acerbic barb hurled at her ex from the Drifters, Peter Holsapple, was almost shockingly hard edged in its anger, but Cowsill's bittersweet observations about life and relationships were more tend the rest of the way.
After the flood, Cowsill's mood was much darker. Her brother Barry, once a sex symbol in the Cowsills and a formidable songwriter in his own right, perished in the bleak days after the flood. His body was found weeks later, wedged into pier moorings in the Mississippi River. Barry's friends had a New Orleans funeral for him in February. A brass band played for the mourners on the banks of the Mississippi, then led a second line to the Kerry Irish Pub, where Susan had organized a musical tribute to Barry. Many of his friends played, and the family band played. Susan performed with her band and played a new song written in the months since she'd become a Katrina refugee, "Crescent City Sneaux." The song detailed Cowsill's sense of displacement and her longing to return home. In a wistful final refrain she delicately asked in a slow, mourful cadence:
Who dat say they gonna beat them Saints?
The refrains became a sing-along that took its cue from the proud hometown chant for the city's professional football team, the New Orleans Saints. The fans loved to root for the Saints even though the team rarely offered much to cheer about - at that point they were one of only three NFL teams to never win the league championship. That season was a particularly rough one for the Saints, who were homeless themselves, while they severely damaged Super Dome was being repaired. Cowsill's sad and sweet recasting of this beloved fight song as a lament was a perfect metaphor for the emotions the people of New Oreleans were feeling in early 2006.
On the afternoon of November 26 John Boutte, Susan Cowsill, and other local musicians performed for free at Woldenberg Park next to the Mississippi River at the Second Annual Down by the Riverside: A Concert of Thanksgiving event.
Susan Cowsill took things to another level with a magic set that opened with her singing Donovan's wistful ballad "Catch the Wind" and balanced Continental Drifters' material, songs from her solo album Just Believe It, and even a song she had performed as a child with her family band, "The Rain, the Park, and Other Things." Toward the end of her set Cowsill played a song written by her brother Barry, who died in the aftermath of Katrina, "River of Love." She brought up Paul Sanchez and John Boutte, who helped her draw the show to a dramatic close with her post-Katrina anthem,"Crescent City Sneaux."
On Saturday, Cowsill also sang with Theresa Andersson on the main stage, then joined Paul Sanchez and John Boutte at the Pavilion stage on Sunday. That set was a high point of the festival and a real tribute to Sanchez as an organizer and collaborator who is magnanimous with the stage time he offers his bandmates. Sanchez assembled an outstanding group for this performance and offered Boutte, Cowsill, and trumpeter/vocalist Shamarr Allen equal time while subtly building the set around compositions he wrote on his own or with Boutte. Sanchez handed his guitar to Cowsill for a version of "Crescent City Sneaux" that was even more powerful than the one from her own set. She conveyed a complex mixture of emotions in quick, broad strokes, contrasting the sense of alienation summoned up in the image of being "like a kite without a string" with the elation of remembered moments in New Orleans. "I'll meet you down at Jackson Square, 12 o'clock, I'll be there," she sang, just as the steamboat Natchez blew its deep, booming whistle in greeting to the prodigal daughter, who got herself back "to a place where I know who I am." The band backed Cowsill gracefully, with Allen turning in a beautiful trumpet solo, as she touched on Mardi Gras Indian chants and the "Saints" call and response. It was a moment of sheer transcendence.
Russ Broussard and Susan Cowsill.