Over the phone from Vancouver, Billy Cowsill crooned Everly Brothers tunes.
"Strangers, that's what we are," sang Cowsill (appropriately enough),. He said it's one of the Everlys more obscure songs. He then delivered another fragment from another forgotten oldie.
"If you don't want, you don't have to," he intoned, half whispering.
Cowsill, whose band The Blue Shadows plays Harpo's this weekend, was explaining how he and bandmate Jeffrey Hatcher were recently invited to sing at an Everly Brothers tribute concert in Los Angeles. It was part of an ongoing series of tribute gigs called Sweet Relief. The money goes to ailing musicians with no health insurance.
Cowsill and Hatcher were surprised and buoyed when the audience leaped to its feet and yelled encouragement.
Yes, folks, they're that good. The vocal harmonies of Cowsill and Hatcher bind together with the ghostly precision usually confined to family groups like the Everly Brothers or the McGarrigle sisters. Their sound also possess something of the incandescent innocence of Paul McCartney and John Lennon's harmonies.
On The Blue Shadows latest disc: Lucky to Me, the pop influence has given way to a grittier, cowboy rock wildness that sounds like Hank Williams (in fact, two of them) has joined a rockabilly/bluegrass combo.
It's the band's second album. The first, On the Floor of Heaven, eventually sold 15,000 copies. Seven weeks out of the gate, Lucky to Me is selling much more briskly, although Cowsill shies from making the figure public. The group's management is now negotiating a U.S. distribution deal.
"I liken the first [disc] to a small pepperoni pizza and this one is the family economy size. It's a little deeper, a little wider. And a little bigger sounding. Tougher," said Cowsill.
Such music isn't what one might expect from a former member of the '60s bubblegum group, The Cowsills. Yes, Bill Cowsill's one of those Cowsills. The family pop band. The prototype for The Partridge Family. Remember their version of Hair? Remember their cover of Good Vibrations?
No? Well, it was, as Cowsill is quick to point out, a long time ago. It's not something he dwells on much, although he does say all the Cowsill siblings are still singing and playing most in Los Angeles.
"All I'll say about that is that we were kids and had some neat little pop records."
After the Cowsills came a lost weekend that lasted for years. Cowsill once told an interviewer he bought a bar and drank it dry. Certainly, the deep lines that score the 49-yer-old musician's face (in contrast with the boyish visages of his younger bandmates) suggest the occasional pursuit of, well alternative pastimes.
Nonetheless through it all, Bill Cowsill stuck with music. Before he moved to Vancouver in 1979, he was living in Austin, Texas, where he "was playing around there with a guitar and a crazy dream."
On the surface, the Cowsill/Hatcher pairing might seem odd. Hatcher who previously achieved regional fame with his Winnipeg-based Jeffrey Hatcher and the Big Beat, could pass for Cowsill's milk-fed son. Cowsill says he originally teamed up with Hatcher more than three years ago. The Billy Cowsill Band was playing at Broadway's Fairview pub in Vancouver. The band needed a guitarist, and Hatcher joined them on stage.
"I said, 'Do you know any Beatles songs?' And he said, 'Oh yeah.' We did a couple of Beatles songs that absolutely made my hair stand on end. I knew within about eight bars of singin' with the man he wasn't going anywhere . . . I called him up and said, 'You've got the job.' H
Cowsill was used to singing melody, with others providing harmonies. But for some reason, he switched to a high harmony with Hatcher, letting the younger man take the lead. Occasionally, though the pair instinctively switch parts back and forth in the same song.
"We just read each other. It just happens. It's a just a lucky thing, you know," said Cowsill.
"It was like falling off a log, and it's been that way ever since."
The two Victoria shows kick off a two-month summer tour of Canada to support the new album. Cowsill says after a life-time of music, he still loves touring. The driving gets tedious. But the shows are sure fun.
"You know what?" he says. "I love hotel rooms."