Singer-songwriter Susan Cowsill drew the precarious 8 p.m. slot Saturday at one of the harder-to-find venues. Creekside at Hilton Garden Inn, but she still just about filled the room, and the crowd was quieter and more attentive than at any other show I saw during South by Southwest.
With her incandescent voice and dark bur irrepressible sense of humor, the longtime New Orleanian is always a captivating performer, and she now, finally has a new album to preview.
“Lighthouse” is the former continental Drifter’s first release since her solo debut, “Just Believe It,” which came out in the U.S. in 2005, right after Hurricane Katrina.
“Katrina got more press,” Cowsill noted dryly. She explained that it has then taken a good while to get the writing and performing parts of her life together again. “We were having a hard time just forming full sentences for a couple years there.”
“Lighthouse” is haunted by loss, manifested in different ways. The summery, floating chorus of new song “Dragon Flys” disguised its underlying melancholy. “River of Love” was written by Cowsill’s older brother Barry, who died mysteriously in the wake of Katrina, and although its theme of separation and longed-for-reunion now seems sadly prescient, her band’s driving delivery and the beautiful four-part vocal harmonies emphasized the hopeful chorus.
In the ballad “Lighthouse,” on the other hand, Cowsill sang of hope, but her melody was suffused with an acknowledgment of profound sorrow, underlined by the simple, plaintive piano-violin arrangement. Apparently more than one person in the audience started Tearing up, because afterward Cowsill shook her head, laughed reassuringly and said “Everything’s OK now! I’m going to prove it with the next song.” Which was “The Rain, the Park and Other Things,” and its innocent chorus of “happy, happy, happy!” sounded just as effervescent as when it was a hit for her family pop band, the Cowsills, in the 1960s.
Maybe it was the resilience in “Lighthouse,” even more than the sadness, that made people cry.