Photo of Theresa Andersson and Susan Cowsill © Jef Jaisun, jaisunphoto.com. All Rights Reserved
The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival (Jazz Fest 2008) opened on Friday April 25 to a packed park, and the sight of the crowds staking out spots on the racetrack infield signaled that the heart and soul of New Orleans was back. That is not to forget that much of the city infrastructure is still in shambles, but the spirit of New Orleans does not and will not give up in the continuing aftermath of hurricane Katrina. Like their protecting presence in so much of southern life, women dominated the main Acura Stage, and the opening acts featured New Orleans' sweetheart Susan Cowsill, honkey tonk queen Kim Carson, and the incomparable and indefinable Theresa Andersson. The women graciously supported each other on a song or two and the crowd loved it. You did not read about this in the mainstream reportage or the local Louisiana press, since headliners Sheryl Crow, Allison Krauss and Robert Plant dominated reviews and headlines from USA Today to the Advocate. The truth be told, the crowd loved the local talent as well, and responded with enough hoots, whistles and applause to be heard all the way to Lafayette, Lake Charles, and beyond.
Susan Cowsill opened the Acura Stage on Friday. For readers too young to remember, pop icon Cowsill was the "baby" sister of the late 60's pop group, The Cowsills, a real life model for television's The Partridge Family. Cowsill is now a fifteen-year resident and multiple music awards winner in the Crescent City, and either consistently wins or is nominated in the Best female Vocalist and Roots Rock Categories. If anyone has ever doubted that her homage to the city that America forgot in the aftermath of Katrina, "Crescent City Snow," is the best Katrina song ever written, ask the crowds that are riveted with every performance. Review after review mentions the intense audience response and connection to the song. Even the mainstream has picked up on this phenomenon and the Associated Press dubbed Crescent City Snow the "anthem" of Katrina in its opening feature on Jazz Fest 2008.
John Swenson has been writing about pop music since 1967. Swenson wrote for Crawdaddy, Rolling Stone, Circus, Rock World, and OffBeat Magazine, and was a syndicated music columnist at United Press International and Reuters. Cowsill was on Swenson's must-see list for Day One of Jazz Fest.
Here is a video of Cowsill's cover of the great Lucinda Williams' "Drunken Angel," performed at French Quarter Fest. Video, unfortunately, was not permitted at Jazz Fest.
Swenson also picked "underrated local country/rockabilly singer and roadhouse queen Kim Carson, [and] the eclectic and imaginative Theresa Andersson Group" to head his personal Fest plan.
Kim Carson is a Texas native country singer and has performed at Jazz Fest close to a dozen times. Carson is known for her unique style and sound, known as "the real deal country." Carson is a hard-working musician and walked onto the Acura Stage fresh off a thirteen-week winter tour that took her to Germany, Switzerland, Costa Rica and Panama.
Cowsill joined Carson for harmony vocals on the song, "Wondering," and the result had audience members whispering that the two women sounded "like angels." It was the first time Carson and Cowsill had performed together.
Jazz Fest organizer Quint Davis personally picked local vocalist and fiddle player Theresa Andersson to precede Krauss and Plant. Davis was quoted as saying there was "nobody else" he wanted for the slot but local girl Andersson with her self-described "psychedelic, healing and easy listening" music. Susan Cowsill also joined Andersson for harmony vocals. The poignancy of the three hometown women joining each other on stage was not lost to locals. All suffered tremendous personal and financial losses to hurricane Katrina, but returned to live and love in the city that loves them back.
There is no doubt that the local talent is terrific and under-appreciated by the national media. This includes dozens and dozens of acts and musicians like Paul Sanchez, Sonia Tetlow, Tab Benoit, and the incomparable John Bouette. This writer thought she was the only press who had a couple of gripes with fest organizers, but it turns out other working stiffs were denied the prime real estate of photo pits and VIP tenting which went to what organizers termed "bigger media." Perhaps that is why local talent is under-recognized, but that is a topic for another column. A couple of writers and photogs got together and compared notes. We all thought that perhaps Jazz Fest is getting a little too big for its britches when it comes to managing media. National and International Press got the VIP treatment and reviewed the national acts. The rest of us got some free tickets and hassles from security. But, we got the job done.
OffBeat music critic, Alex Rawls, notes that something else is happening at Jazz Fest--something that impacts audience members as well. Rawls wrote, "The audience was backed up at least five yards - now approximately 10 yards from the stage - so that those wealthy enough to make the $450+ price tag had room to wander up and loiter comfortably during the show while fans were pressed against the railing. The area runs the width of the stage, so it's not just a pocket at stage center. It's a strip of prime real estate that has been turned over to the rich."
But, let's go back to Cowsill and Andersson, throw in the "lost soul queen" of the sixties, Betty Harris, and see what can happen when music has her way and money takes a back seat.
For those lucky enough to be there, magic happened in Algiers that Friday night and you could imagine the music muse spreading her sheltering wings over a funky little bar on the levee, a joint called the Old Point. This was an instance in which the soul of music and art was revealed in a way that the poets write about. This was no manipulative themed tour like those supported and honed by massive music machines which feature phony southern-themed tent-revivals that are nothing more than circus side-shows designed to eclipse the real heart and soul of music making. So many musicians have abandoned Louisiana and New Orleans, but still try to make a buck or two off of the suffering. A couple of survivors gathered in Algiers and took music back for the Mississippi delta in a huge way.
Local promoter, producer and well-respected musician Marc Stone bet the farm by scheduling a show on the opening night of Jazz Fest. Well, it probably wasn't that dicey, since he chose the incomparable Betty Harris to work her magic at the Old Point. We reviewed Betty once before at the same venue and once again she did not disappoint. Betty Harris is a master of the soul performance. There is, quite simply, no one like her, and to see her live is to have a Betty Harris experience. See our previous review here.It still holds up. Go buy her CD, "Intuition."
Something happened during Harris' performance which revealed the grace and elegance of a soul queen who knows exactly who she is and is big enough to take a pause in her own superbly crafted show to give what amounted to a tribute to a younger female artist she spotted in the packed crowd. It was the first of several "wow" moments that night, and this writer will never forget it. As fate, the luck of the draw, or music angels would have it, Seattle based, award winning music photographer, Jef Jaisun, was also in the house. Jaisun covers music because he loves it. He is not in it for the money (there is none). His photos eloquently capture the texture of the moments they depict.
Harris, looking elegant in a blue sequined black gown, expressed her internal elegance and the definition of "soul" by literally stopping the show when she spotted Susan Cowsill in the crowd. Harris described the first time she saw Cowsill perform, which was a week earlier in a run down little joint in Atlanta. Harris spoke in a quiet, drawn out drawl that magically produced a hushed silence in the excited crowd. She spoke of the "Cowsill sound" which was evident in the voice of a woman who "sang her heart out" to an almost empty Atlanta bar in the strong, confident voice of a true performer. Harris brought tears to Cowsill's eyes when she went on to compliment Cowsill's back-up drummer and husband, Russ Broussard, for being a white guy who is a "black drummer," meaning that Broussard knew how to fill in all of the nuances needed to compliment Cowsill's sparse accompaniment on guitar and make the sound seem like it was a full band.
Harris' gesture cannot be defined, quantified or replicated. It was a moment that spoke to truth, beauty, art and elegance.
The Betty Harris show would have been enough to fulfill anyone's dream of a fine night of New Orleans' soul, but there was more yet to come as Cowsill and Theresa Andersson teamed up in a moment of serendipity and spontaneous musical art that could only happen in new Orleans.
With no rehearsal, the two women, backed by Marc Stone's band on some of the numbers, delivered a solid set and perfectly pitched performance that will never be duplicated. What is even more remarkable is that the clock was pushing 2 AM, and both Andersson and Cowsill had been awake since 5 AM the previous day in preparation for their Acura Stage performances. Luckily, photographer Jaisun was there to deliver some fine images of a fleeting moment. This writer had a high definition video camera in the trunk of her car, but could not bring herself to leave the room and miss a beat of music that filled the heart and soul with healing grace.
The opening tune was a Susan Cowsill set staple--Donovan's beautiful lament, "Catch the Wind." There was no chilly moment of uncertainty, as Andersson's electrified fiddle soared through the melody and her vocal harmony melded perfectly with Cowsill's interpretation. Jaisun and I looked at each other and mouthed the "wow." I could not help but remember the iconic moment when Mama Cass mouthed the same "wow" when she saw Janis Joplin perform at Monterey Pop. Jaisun resumed clicking away and I was praying that the moment was there on film. It is.
The tone shifted to steamy Mississippi delta night blues when Stone's band got solidly behind "Mississippi," an Andersson classic interpretation of the Bobbie Gentry tune.
M I double S I double S I double P I
M I double S I double S I double P I
Right in the middle of the cotton belt
Down in the Mississippi Delta
Wearin last years possum belt
Smack dab in the Mississippi Delta
Sittin and scratchin' mosquito bites
Old fox done give him the slip
Watchin' the mornin' glories grow
In Biloxi on an overnight trip...
Hearing those lyrics belted out by Cowsill and Andersson not a hundred yards from the levee, where Cowsill and I sat "scratchin mosquito bites" and watching trees sway in the wind a few hours before, was a once in an all too short lifetime experience.
It occurred to me that this was real life. A steamy night on a Mississippi levee, in a tiny juke joint, with the spring waters rising, cicadas humming, flood warnings on the backwaters and bayous, and honest, bluesy music hanging in the night air. Yeah this was it. The real deal. Wow.
Writer's Note: I have been nervous about doing too much writing about music in New Orleans because I have become friends of many of the musicians, writers and performers here. But, I have decided to make my own ethical rules as I go along. No one has paid me a dime to support this music. It is something I believe in and once you become part of the community of New Orleans, there is no escaping getting to know fellow writers. That is the definition of community and I am proud to know some of the people here. I know that soon this will become a paying gig and I will have some decisions to make, but there will be an ethical way to support these people by continuing to write about them, and I will find it.
New Orleans reminds me of the stories I have read about ex-pat artists and writers in the glory days of Paris. Those were the times when writers and artists and poets and patrons supported each other. There was no mad money machine (think record labels) behind the writers' community in those days. When I see how the mainstream media is favored at festivals, I think it is time to be bold and do what is right and necessary. In other words to paraphrase Betty Davis, "When you need a broad with balls, call me."
I am honored to stand shoulder to shoulder with the fine, under-rated and under-appreciated artists of New Orleans who have risked all to come back to the city and music they love.
This article cross-posted on OEN News