In other business, our current issue features Geoffrey Himes’ cover story on John Boutte, someone who has made some of the most vital, relevant music in the year after Katrina. His performances of songs such as “Why?” have asked the questions and made the points that are on our minds. Though she has received less attention, Susan Cowsill’s shows have similarly spoken for so many New Orleanians, transforming the post-Katrina experience into art.
The loss of her brother Barry in the hurricane fueled a cover of Lucinda Williams’ “Drunken Angel” that was so loaded with grief and loss that it was almost unbearable. When she sang Williams’ “Crescent City,” the love and loss was not only in the line, “My brother knew where the best bars are” but in the chorus, “we used to dance / the night away.” The song and line seemed to refer to him first, but with each chorus, it seemed like it was about more, about all the people who used to be here who danced nights away.
At Barry’s wake, she performed “Crescent City Snow”—her Katrina song—and the anguish and power in the way she sang, “I want to go back to the place / where I know who I am” spoke for all of us, articulating why we’re back and the pain at the cost of living here.
By Jazz Fest, she wasn’t quite such a raw, emotional nerve, and fittingly, she performed “Drunken Angel” for the last time at the festival. She was in no danger of breaking down crying mid-song, and that night she paid a different kind of tribute to her brother by adding his song, “River of Love,” to her set. It has its own emotional resonances—her brother’s song, a lyric about waiting by a river—but celebrating his art started to seem like the right gesture and a healing gesture. It’s also a helluva good song.
At her most recent Carrollton Station appearance, Cowsill had a new band that played her songs with a rock ’n’ roll energy and drive. Fronting that band with the same material, she sounded like someone who was coming to grips with her life today and through that, her art. Where she once seemed completely lost in emotional turbulence, she sounded in early August like she’d gone through that phase, figured out how to deal, and had found power in surviving. It also sounded like the process most of us have gone through this year. She performs at Carrollton Station Saturday night.