Live recording sessions
June 27, 29 & 30
Driving up to the Mecca Café on the outskirts of northwest Calgary, the paved road gives way to a gravel parking lot, the highway view to that of a trailer restaurant, and it’s easy to believe you’ve been transported into another era. It's a natural setting for a live recording of classic songs from rock's golden years. The ancient blue four-door, graced with dust and rust, sitting in the parking lot, adds another little piece to the illusion. So, too, does the well-travelled face inside the sedan – a familiar head focused downward in the driver's seat, concentrating against the glare of an afternoon sun that's competing with acres of cloud.
When you realize that the car's occupant was a musical king in a previous era, and that his pen is pressed to a spiral notebook, it's easy to jump to a conclusion: The famed performer whose band The Cowsills gave the world hits like "Hair" and "The Rain, the Park, and Other Things," the person who was a member of the musical family upon which television's Partridge Family was based, must certainly be writing another song like the miracle tune "Vagabond."
Nope. In spite of more than 30 years in the music industry, the gray-haired singer – who once told Fast Forward, "I've always cheered young musicians, young attitudes, bad attitudes" – is taking careful notes from a childhood development textbook and transcribing them in a spiral notebook. For although he is on the wise side of 50, Billy Cowsill is attending Mount Royal College and is about a third of the way through his B.A., working on becoming a counsellor for troubled youth.
"I'm 53 years old, and I don't know who'd even want to hire me at this age, by the time I do a masters after this, but I have to do this for my brain. I lived in a haze for 25 years, and a lot of memories were gone after I came out of rehab three years ago. I started the course to work my mind – I had to do something for it," Cowsill reflects. "I figured I'd be good at (working with adolescents) because I've been a misdirected adolescent myself."
He’s spent more than 25 years on the highway to rock ’n' roll heaven before making that life-saving detour, and it’s had a profound physical as well as mental effect. Three years ago, when he first began gigging again after winning a skirmish in his addictions battle, Cowsill found the physical toll extreme. He developed a habit of sitting in his car between sets, listening to the radio, to avoid the temptations of chemical escape that can be siren songs to musicians playing bars.
But, as drummer Ross Watson, a member of Cowsill's band The Co-Dependents, explains, Cowsill's time with the car radio obviously augments a talent developed while spending time in L.A. with master producer Harry Nilsson in the 1970s.
"He takes the songs apart for us – each little detail," says Watson. "He'll sit down on the drums for me, and show me the part."
The result is that The Co-Dependents' shows are immaculate auditory journeys through some of the finest songs of rock's golden era, songs like "Anna" and "Baby, It's You." The loving attention to detail elevates this band above mere cover band status because, as bassist Tim Leacock (who along with Watson also forms one half of local darlings National Dust) says, "Other bands don't have Billy Cowsill in them. There's no one else who can sing like that, who can take the songs apart and show us how it's done."
Guitarist Steve Pineo, whose singing on a version of The Stones' "Far Away Eyes" beats the underpants off old Mick, and who has recorded several solo albums, never regrets being onstage performing covers with Cowsill alongside the band's own songs.
"He shows us things no one else knows how to do. Like a singing technique on those low gospel harmonies, singing half as hard, but close to the mike. He knows these things."
Cowsill met Leacock and Watson in 1987 when he produced an album for their band, The Burners.
"Yeah, I met them that long ago – and I knew then I'd never get rid of them," says Cowsill, laughing.
And now that they all play together at the Mecca, where nearly as many comments are made about the amazing acoustics as about the fine barbeque, The Co-Dependents have chosen the venue as the place to record a live album. They're working up versions of songs from Cowsill's acclaimed country band, The Blue Shadows, and planning to perform some new songs Cowsill has co-written with Pineo and Leacock, as well as their beloved covers. Nashville producer Miles Wilkinson, who has received three Grammy nominations and has produced Guy Clark and Cindy Church, will oversee the recording session, which will take place over three nights in late June.
But don't expect to hear any of Cowsill's museum pieces, like "Indian Lake," tossed into the mix. He has definite emotions about his old songs.
"I can't stand them," says Cowsill. "Well, ‘Hair,’ I like ‘Hair,’ but that's it."
Such irony – an impeccable cover band, graced with a divine hit-maker who worships at the altar of any hit more than 30 years old except his own?
"Yeah, it is ironic. But I'm existential; I don't think about it."