"Well, that was a first. We've never performed that song looking directly at Indian Lake before."
Bob Cowsill said that as the crowd, in summer wear and bathing suits, surged and cheered on the open field at Old Field Beach State Park at Indian Lake, on the western side of Ohio. Quite a few had arrived by boat, having anchored at the beach. The hot sun was bearing down on them, which somehow seemed to improve their mood. This was a perfect summer day, a perfect summer event.
The Cowsills had just opened their concert with a rousing version of "Indian Lake," a Top Ten hit in 1968. For the locals at the Chamber of Commerce's annual Party at the Beach, it was an acknowledgement of past glories - not just of a time when the clean-cut Cowsills were America's favorite family band, but also when Indian Lake (and the nearby town of Russell's Point) was a Midwest tourist resort, famous for its Sandy Beach Amusement Park with its dance pavilion and 2,000-foot-long roller coaster. (It was demolished in 1982 after decades of decline.) It was hard to judge crowd size, given the spread-out nature, but it could have been around 1,000. An anonymous local donor had paid to bring the Cowsills there for the event.
The Cowsills at Indian Lake were two brothers - Bob, 61, and Paul, 59 - and 52-year-old sister Susan, who has her own budding career as an Americana-oriented singer-songwriter. But at their peak, back in the day, they consisted of those three plus brothers Bill, Barry and John and their mother, Barbara. They were just kids - Boomer teens and younger - on tour with mom and managed by their dad, a Navy careerist.
It is far from certain the song "Indian Lake" was named for the lake. It was written by Tony Romeo, a pop songsmith who also wrote "I Think I Love You" for the Partridge Family (more about them later) and had a thing for forced rhyming ("Indian Lake is a scene you should make with your little one") and catchy melodies. But the Cowsills began their career in Canton, Ohio, around the start of the 1960s. And though they were living in Newport, R.I., when their hits started, Ohio can claim them.
Summertime, USA, is filled with small-town outdoor fairs and parties that proudly book 1960s or 1970s oldies acts to play hits (often without any original members) and meet and greet the locals. Such shows are often slick, kitschy and soulless.
But the Cowsills show was different. First, because they were (and still are) family, there's meaning and feeling in the performance and the interaction between the three singers. (The back-up band, too, is family - Paul's two sons Brendan and Ryan on guitar and keyboards, Susan's husband Russ Broussard on drums. The bass player, Mary Lasseigne, is introduced by Bob as "sister" so she doesn't feel out of place.)
There's also poignancy and currency to being on the road now. A new documentary, Family Band: The Cowsills Story, is just beginning to make the rounds of film festivals this summer and advance word is that it uncovers some raw truths below the family-friendly image, especially about the way their now-deceased dad, William "Bud," treated them, and how difficult adulthood turned out to be for some of the siblings. But it also shows the bond existing among the three still active in the band, and in a way their limited concerts are a way to reinforce that relationship. It's the oldies-rock version of The Tree of Life.
The show was well-rehearsed (the sound check took 40 minutes) and musically professional, but not "produced" in the way a current Turtles or Monkees concert might be, to mention two other AM-friendly pop vocal acts of the era. The three original Cowsills dress casually, banter about and in general act like it's just a bigger-than-usual family gathering.
In the concert, Bob and Paul do quite a few covers of folk-rock tunes - just as the oldest brothers used to do in the beginning, before the Cowsills became a Top-40 act. Simon & Garfunkel's "Homeward Bound" and Peter, Paul & Mary's "Puff the Magic Dragon," "If I Had My Way" and "If I Had a Hammer" all got played here - the last gaining credibility when three sang out about "the love between my brothers and my sisters."
Susan does several songs from her fine Lighthouse album of 2011, and the group performs material from the generally overlooked Americana-leaning solo catalogue of their two deceased brothers, Bill and Barry. To give the departed their due is one mission of the show.
The three siblings on stage at Indian Lake were pretty matter-of-fact about addressing Barry's shocking death. "We lost Barry during Hurricane Katrina," Bob told the crowd. "(He) did not evacuate when he should have." (Barry's body was not found for some four months after the 2005 flooding of New Orleans. And Bill, who lived in Canada and had health problems, died the same day as Barry's memorial service.) Susan took the lead on a rousing, emotional version of Barry's cathartic, Petty-like "River of Love," a song filled with dark irony now. (She also lived in New Orleans when Katrina hit, but had left in time, and recorded "River of Love" for Lighthouse.)
I'm not sure if the fans, who mostly were there for some pop nostalgia, were prepared for the way the song - or the back story - darkened their sunshine pop, but they did seem to respect it. And "River of Love" rocked them.
The Cowsills did honor their Top 40 past - sometimes with sweet good humor, other times with sly wit. And the hits hold up well. In particular, the expansive melodic rush of "The Rain, The Park & Other Things" - a chart topper from 1967 - fits in well with the era of "Good Vibrations," "Happy Together" and "Up, Up and Away" - pop-rock optimism at most beautiful. It sounded fantastic, echoing throughout the park, as did "We Can Fly" - a 1968 hit in a similar vein.
When one man in the crowd hollered out for "the milk song," they complied - saying they hadn't done it live before. Bob and Paul sang out "milk is the lift that will last." The Cowsills also invited people on stage, and so many came up (while others danced about in a sandy area in front) you wondered if the stage would collapse.
Bob and Paul used the song selection to tell stories about their career - explaining both how they felt at the time and how they feel now about having been a family pop group with an image safe as milk at a time of teenage revolution. For instance, Paul prefaced their theme to the TV series "Love American Style" - a program on the square side of pop culture in the late 1960s/early 1970s - this way: "When we were kids, we didn't care that we did the theme for a TV show. Now that we're older, we think it's really cool. That's one of the ways you change through the years."