FALL RIVER — Cowsill’s debut album as a solo act didn’t arrive until 2005, but it garnered rave reviews for its succinct lyrical content and potpourri of rootsy styles. Last summer Cowsill released her second album, “Lighthouse,” which is just as infectious, even as it examines serious issues like loss and mortality.
Broussard and Cowsill live in New Orleans, and lost their home and everything in it during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Worse yet, her brother Barry disappeared during the storm, and his body was not recovered until December of that year. A day before Barry’s funeral, brother Bill Cowsill died of natural causes in Calgary. (Brothers Bob, Paul and John Cowsill are still around, and still occasionally perform.) There are no doubt some poignant, tear-jerking moments in Cowsill’s music from the new album, but also an ineffable air of faith and optimism, and even fun.
Fun was the major element in Saturday’s 20-song setlist, which probably included half that many funny introductions from the singer. During one brief delay for band organization, and conscious of the live radio broadcast going to Martha’s Vineyard, Cowsill filled the empty time with a hilariously skewed advertisement for Alpo.
Cowsill’s backing band was noteworthy, as half of it was from the young New Orleans indie-rock band Glasgow. Cowsill’s husband Broussard was on drums with Mary Lasseigne, who has a solo album out this year too, on bass. But fiddler/vocalist Sam Kraft, brother Jack Kraft on keyboards and cello, and vocalist Alexis Marceaux are three-fifths of Glasgow. Sam Kraft has a degree in violin from Loyola University, while Jack is finishing up his degree focusing on cello, while Marceaux has her own career as solo singer-songwriter, as well as a forthcoming album. It adds up to a lot of talent and a lot of energy.
Cowsill opened with a shambling, good-timey version of John Prine’s “Angel From Montgomery,” and it was immediately evident her clear and resonant alto is delivered with utter confidence. The easy rocking “Sweet Bitter End” contained a bit of funk underpinning, while “Dragonflies” from her new CD rode a very gritty rock foundation. Cowsill’s knack for balancing wistful poignance with light-hearted verve was quite obvious on “NOLA,” a sort of goodbye-but-I-can’t-leave paean to her hometown.
Broussard donned a rub-board forn the peppy Crescent City gumbo of “Just Believe It,” title cut from his wife’s first album. Then, beginning a pattern she’d follow all night, Cowsill stepped away and let the three Glasgow members take the spotlight, as Sam Kraft sang lead on their funny, cello-infused rocker “Oh No.” Not long after, bassist Lasseigne sang a cut off her new album, “American Girl,” which sounded like rockabilly strained through r&b. The “kids’ music” segment concluded later on with Marceaux singing “Orange Moon” from her forthcoming CD of that name, a haunting love song that seemed as much fevered scat singing as lyrics.
Cowsill’s own music was striking, from the soaring ballad “The Way That It Goes,” to the mavelously melodic “Real Life,” which was so intoxicating it reminded you of the old Fifth Dimension. A real highlight was “The Rain the Park, and Other Things,” aka “The Flower Girl,” which was a number one hit for the Cowsills way back in 1967. Jack Kraft’s tinkling electric piano re-created the song’s sugary vibe and Cowsill and her band, along with most of the fans, sang along gleefully.
Cowsill and Broussard rightfully celebrate their Continental Drifters’ days, and the pounding country-rocker “Water’s Rising” was one prime example. If anything, the full-bore rocker “When It Rains” was an even more visceral barnburner.
“Avenue of the Indians” was done as a duet with Jackson Browne on her new album, but Sam Kraft filled in ably Saturday on that tune, which Cowsill told us was inspired by her Newport childhood. “Nanny’s Song,” from her first CD, was a sweet ballad about Broussard’s grandmother’s last days, which still manages to be life-affirming. The hushed version of “Lighthouse,” done with just violin and piano, was one of Cowsill’s more impressive vocal turns. And the rootsy romp “River of Love,” written by Barry Cowsill, was a raucous way to end the set.
For encores, Cowsill sang a delectable rendition of “Galveston,” the Glen Campbell hit penned by Jimmy Webb, with the keening fiddle and guitar turning it into world class tear-in-your-beer material. Then she ended the night with “Crescent City Sneaux,” which began as a hushed lament and burst into polyrhythmic celebration.