Recommended Albums #78

The Cowsills: The Billy Cowsill Benefit Concert (2004)

Family pop band (and inspiration behind the Partridge Family TV series) the Cowsills staged a benefit concert in September of 2004 at the El Rey Theater in Los Angeles to benefit oldest brother Billy, whose health was in decline (Billy would pass away in February of 2006, on the same day the Cowsills were memorializing brother Barry, who died in the wake of Hurricane Katrina).

The 2004 concert recording, enhanced by a little studio polish, is a document to be treasured by fans of the group, whose brief top 40 chart run lasted only from 1967-69. Treasured because there is precious little in the way of widely available audio documentation of the Cowsills in a live setting during the years when all performing siblings were still living. Treasured also because they delivered a visceral energy in a live setting that their more sterile studio recordings couldn’t match.

A prime example is the show’s curtain raiser, and their most enduring hit “The Rain, the Park and Other Things”, which perhaps sums up 1967 as well as anything from Sgt. Pepper–given a goosing here by a more prominent bass line and some sweet drum fills. The complexity of the Cowsills’ vocal arrangements may call to mind chart contemporaries like the Beach Boys. Or perhaps a better comparison would be the Mamas and the Papas.

Or “You’re Not the Same Girl”, previously released by Vancouver band Blue Northern, of which Bill Cowsill was a member. The Cowsill family harmonies make one wonder whether the Canadian top 40 hit could have been more than a footnote in America.

Sister Susan Cowsill takes the lead on “Nanny’s Song”, which she’d recorded on a solo album. The lyric–and her delivery–are simply heartrending:

And when I asked here’s what he told
I want to see my son grow old

Oh, Oh, I don’t want to leave this earth
Oh, Oh, I don’t want to let it go

With all the endless summer days
Watching winter while it fades
Autumn’s sunlight through the trees
The scent of springtime on the breeze
It’s real life that sets you free
Can I take it all with me?
Watching babies while they sleep
Chasing fireflies through the streets
Sleeping under star-filled skies
That moment real love arrives
It’s not as if I didn’t know
That I’d have to let it go

“All I Really Want to Be is Me” is the group’s first-ever release, written by brothers Bill and Bob in ’66 when they were 15 and 13 years old respectively. For this performance they hand over vocal duties to the one sibling who’d never sung in the band, brother Richard. Although his singing is uh…somewhat below the band’s–or perhaps any professional band’s–standard, the song itself is a burner, with more great drum fills from John.

It has one of those elemental choruses that might make you think of a Basement Tapes-era demo Dylan would toss aside and another band would resurrect. Basic and brilliant.

Richard, for reasons not entirely clear, was kept out of the band by his father, and served in Vietnam while his brothers and sister shared the limelight. While the concert is a benefit for Bill, the family carves out a space for Richard too. You can hear a lot of love in the room.

And a lot of talent too.

 

Listen to: “The Rain, the Park and Other Things”

 

Listen to: “You’re Not the Same Girl”

 

Listen to: “Nanny’s Song”

 

Listen to: “All I Really Want to Be is Me”

 

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