saga of an L.A. band's blissful drift south.
you're into being really angry, there are few better targets for your
displaced resentment than those loathsome expatriates, lazing around
some exotic locale, breathing in the clean air. They stick together,
presumably to gloat -- yes, they think they're better than us. And it's
just another reason to hate the Continental Drifters, the infuriating
folk-rock sextet made up primarily of former L.A. residents, all of
whom forsook our beloved metropolis for New Orleans. It's a unique saga
-- Disneyfied to the point that it'll make you sick, dignified enough
to make you fly off the handle with jealousy.
started back in 1992, when an almost entirely different band called
the Continental Drifters converged in the woolly Hollywood hole-in-the-wall
Raji's. The band presided over a notoriously freewheeling, Bayou-inspired
jam session every Tuesday night from the club's tiny, rickety stage
-- the early '90s Drifters featured New Orleans transplants Ray Ganucheau
and Carlo Nuccio joined by Dream Syndicate bassist Mark Walton and other
local notables. Sashaying into this milieu, and eventually into the
band, were Peter Holsapple of '80s cult band the dB's, Susan Cowsill
of the Cowsills and Bangles guitarist Vicki Peterson. Though they'd
each enjoyed relative levels of success and notoriety, they wanted something
more and better, and in the Drifters they each found a musical rapport
they'd never had.
smoked cigarettes," recalls Holsapple, speaking by phone from what he
describes as his "artist's garret apartment downtown on the Mardi Gras
parade route" (La-dee-da!). "I was really impressed by that. [They]
were very strange, very, very rock 'n' roll." Holsapple was disenchanted
by the struggle and communication breakdown of his North Carolina-based
dB's, and the Drifters offered him a captivating, no-bullshit alternative:
"They'd yell for 10 minutes, then it would be all arms around the neck
and everyone's friends again."
Peterson, reeling from the alienating show biz the Bangles had become,
found family in the Continental Drifters.
didn't matter what you looked like, it didn't matter what you were wearing,
it didn't matter really who you are," she says. "It was just about getting
together in a room with people you liked and trusted and just singin'
Cowsill, on the other hand, the experience was refreshingly nonfamilial.
Relegated to singing harmony with her siblings in their eponymous late-'60s
pop act, she was startled by musical comrades receptive to a song she'd
actually written herself: "They were like, "That's cool, man -- you
rock,'" says Cowsill. "I was like, I "rock'? You've got to be kidding.
Well, yeah, I do -- of course. I knew that all the time."
like a haughty slap in the face to all the fine hair-metal and Nirvana-clone
bands on the Strip at the time, the Drifters' party continued every
Tuesday at Raji's, even relocating to the Pantages at one point to open
for Dylan. Recalls Walton, "It was all for nothing and all for one."
There was no aspiration to the big time; it was an extended, egalitarian
musical family -- so friendly, in fact, that Cowsill and Holsapple
would eventually marry.
unlike us faithful citizens, these turncoats tired of the traffic, the
haze and our treasured social pathologies. They couldn't take the heat,
and, one by one, they got out of the kitchen, following Ganucheau and
Nuccio home to their all-too-Big Easy.
their free spirits with them and leaving Raji's to its imminent demise,
the Drifters established themselves as a beloved live act in New Orleans,
and the recorded output that followed certainly doesn't sound like L.A.
The band's 1994 self-titled debut is a jukebox of honey-kissed original
pop and folk stirred in with soul, country and singer-songwriter classics
ranging from left field to the AM radio. But it wasn't until 1997's
Vermilion -- which blitzed critics' polls stateside and
made it onto the actual charts in Germany -- that the full cabal appeared
on disc. With Robert Maché, another Angeleno gone south, having replaced
Ganucheau on guitar, and Cajun-country native (and former pro bike racer
Russ Broussard) succeeding Nuccio on drums, Vermilion has a gorgeous
softness. Cowsill calls it the "collective sigh of relief" after leaving
thing about New Orleans is it's a slower land and you're more inspired
-- no, encouraged -- just by the wind to sit down for a minute,"
Cowsill says. But that breezy feel is far from geographically specific
-- the same breeze blows through the best folk rock and country rock,
from the British roots music of Richard and Linda Thompson to Jimmie
Dale Gilmore's Texas folk twang. It rounds out edges, loosens notes
in a guitar lead, breathes between beats, ventilates chords -- it's
fitting that the Drifters practice in their living rooms instead of
the smothered black box of a rehearsal space.
airiness imbues all of Vermilion's tunes: the Holsapple-penned,
Cowsill-crooned "I Want to Learn to Waltz With You"; Peterson's bluesy
roadburner "Christopher Columbus Transcontinental Highway"; and the
supple pop folk of "Drifters," varnished by Cowsill and Peterson's clear-after-the-rain
harmonies -- "We're all drifters, singers and sisters, brothers and
mothers, lovers and confidants." It's as powerful a band theme as has
ever been written. Beats the hell out of "Hey hey, we're the Monkees!"
the time since Vermilion, Cowsill and Holsapple divorced, and
while you'd expect such a rift to cause the Drifters to do some drifting,
the Raji's family ethic has pulled them through. Where's the proof?
"On the record," says a smart-assed Cowsill. "The fact that there is
that it was a sure thing. According to Peterson, the recording studio
had been reserved for January 2 of this year to record the new album.
But when the band walked onstage two nights earlier -- New Year's Eve
at New Orleans' Howlin Wolf -- the songs that would become Better
Day were barely known, even to the band. "We'd decided that night
that we were going to play everything we had that was new just so we'd
played through it once," says Peterson. "And when I got offstage, early
in the morning on New Year's Day, I felt, OK, we have a record.'"
result is defiantly upbeat, raw and rootsy. A studio rush job backed
by TV-ad-music hawkers Razor and Tie, nine of Better Day's 12
tracks were first takes. And like John Hiatt's classic rush job Bring
the Family, not only is it a testament to true character, but great
playing. There's the crafty guitar interplay between Peterson and Maché,
who blend blues, folk and pop-rock licks into one indelible style. It's
backed by Broussard's supple, propulsive drumming, aptly described by
Maché: "It just makes you feel like you're floating instead of being
knocked around." Walton's subtle bass lines underscore the unpretentiousness
of the songs, including that of the title track, the bassist's pub-crawling,
groggily resolute vocal debut. While the dB's' skewed power pop had
gotten folksier by the time of their demise, Holsapple's work with the
Drifters shows progression to a wide-ranging, effortless pop classicism.
"(Down by the) Great Mistake," his hilarious Tex-Mex gender-grudge-match
duet with Peterson, and the '60s R&B-groovy "Live on Love" boast
Holsapple's chops with both the keyboard and the pen. If only Stax/Volt
were still putting out records and needed both a master songwriter in
the house and someone to replace Booker T., he'd be a shoo-in for both
Cowsill still sings like someone who's just discovered that she rocks
-- soulful, direct and proud, sweetly crackling, both stylish and unaffected.
Her songs are heart-to-hearts, weighted by deceptively simple observations
that cut to the roots of daily fears. "As the days get longer I can't
remember if I'm getting worse or getting better at playin' this part,
now where did it start," she sings on "Snow," the pop-folk emotional
pinnacle of Better Day. As for Peterson, her words have a romantic
dignity matched by the hard-won strength in her voice on the roots rocker
"Na Na" and on the sweetly literate accordion waltz "That Much a Fool."
One has to wonder -- has she outgrown the Bangles?
here's the more pertinent question: Could the impending Bangles reunion,
already a year in the works, bring an end to this madness and foil the
Drifters at long last? "It was feeling briefly like an adversarial kinda
thing," Broussard admits. "Them and us -- we both needing Vicki. But
it's not that at all."
how a resuscitated Bangles will affect the band, here's what Maché has
to say: "Well, let's see. It'll make Vicki really happy."
get to open for 'em," adds Holsapple, referring to the joint show scheduled
for later this month in San Diego.
they'll hit Los Angeles. June 7 at the Troubadour, the prodigal band
return for their first local show in six years. But think long and hard
before you go -- your attendance will only encourage these turncoats,
and you may be in some danger. As the journey of these lapsed Angelenos
has shown, lose yourself in the Continental Drifters' airy folk rock
and you never know what you'll do next. You could just find yourself
breathing clean air, savoring gumbo, plucking a mandolin -- and living
a rock 'n' roll dream.
By Keith Spera
FOR A ‘BETTER DAY'
ROCKERS THE CONTINENTAL DRIFTERS HOPE THEIR THIRD CD'S THE CHARM
The ties that bind the Continental Drifters are stronger than ever on
their new 'Better Day' CD
Four hours before
the Continental Drifters are to unveil "Better Day" at a hometown CD
release party, the Howlin' Wolf is remarkably serene.
Peter Holsapple bustles about the stage of the Warehouse District club,
checking the band's gear. Robert Mache tunes his guitars and adjusts
his amplifiers. Bassist Mark Walton sets up a merchandise table laden
with copies of "Better Day." Drummer Russ Broussard watches his 3-year-old
son pedal around the empty venue on a small bicycle equipped with training
wheels. Vocalists/guitarists Susan Cowsill and Vicki Peterson fine-tune
the placement of confetti, balloons, food and other party favors purchased
"We're our own
road crew, our own decorating committee, our own caterers," Cowsill
says. "Then tonight, we're going to come onstage and be fabulous stars."
It is all very
calm, all very quaint, and all so very unlike the Continental Drifters.
Over the Drifters'
decade-long existence, the forces of nature have sometimes seemed to
conspire against them. They have survived multiple membership changes,
internal strife, bad breaks, soap opera-like drama, a move halfway across
the country and the indifference of an MTV-fueled music industry that
arbitrarily excludes most artists over age 30.
But the players
persevered through it all to make "Better Day," easily the Drifters'
most vital, invigorated recording. Their collective joy is apparent,
from "Live on Love," Holsapple's sing-song ode to the beach music of
his native North Carolina, to Peterson's driving road song "Long Journey
Home," to Cowsill's achingly beautiful "Snow." Throughout, the band's
trademark harmonies wrap around melodies that only strike deeper with
repeated listens. Whatever the label -- roots rock, Americana, rock
‘n roll for adults -- this band does it as well as anybody.
nagging bad luck almost managed to impose itself on their CD release
party. That afternoon, Cowsill's car was towed from outside the club;
her prize acoustic guitar, the one she planned to use that night and
on the three-week tour that began the next day, was inside. A line of
thunderstorms bearing down on the city threatened to douse the SkyTracker
spotlight rented for the occasion and put a damper on the party, surely
a bad omen.
was able to recover her car and guitar, and at the last moment, the
storm veered northeast. The SkyTracker's beams guided more than 400
friends and fans to the Howlin' Wolf to help the Drifters celebrate.
The band rewarded them by rendering "Better Day" in its entirety, followed
by another 90 minutes of old favorites and literate roots rock ‘n' soul
Early on, there
were awkward pauses between songs as they traded off the instruments
needed to duplicate the sequence of the record. But frustrations were
kept in check. They exchanged compliments, smiles and support, generating
a palpable warmth and energy among themselves that radiated from the
stage and through the audience.
The tables at
the Howlin' Wolf were decorated with the same red "better day" prayer
candle that adorns the cover of the band's new CD. Its implications
are not unintentional.
like Up With People, (this CD) is us trying to live through whatever
adversities we run into," Holsapple said. "And if there was ever a band
that needed to be prayed for, it's the Continental Drifters."
The first, extremely
loose aggregation of the Continental Drifters came together in Los Angeles
in 1991, when Walton collected a handful of compatible musician acquaintances
and formed a weekly Tuesday night music club at Raji's on Hollywood
Boulevard. Players came and went frequently.
other people along the way because they were like-minded and, in some
cases, they just wouldn't go away," Walton said. ("I think that was
me," Peterson said).
Each came with
a colorful history. Peterson was a founding member of the Bangles; the
hits "Walk Like An Egyptian," "Manic Monday" and "Hazy Shade of Winter"
made her an early MTV guitar heroine. Cowsill grew up around the L.A.
music scene as a member of the Cowsills family band, the model for TV's
Partridge Family. Walton logged time with psychedelic pop band Dream
Syndicate, Mache with guitar-pop bandleader Steve Wynn.
the Drifters represented an especially appealing safe harbor. He had
landed in L.A. after playing as R.E.M.'s unofficial fifth member during
the "Green" tour. His first marriage was coming to an end; unsure of
what to do next, he became a Drifter.
"I saw this
little gathering of people and these songs, and it was all very involving,"
Holsapple said. "It was like, ‘Wow, a club I could actually belong to.'
keep the early momentum going, Walton vowed that he would muscle some
version of the Drifters onstage every week, whatever the challenge.
When the Tuesday finally came that he could muster no volunteers, he
stood at the door of Raji's and handed out a free Continental Drifters
cassette to every patron.
drinking were a common bond back then. Now that the band is cigarette-free,
Holsapple can joke about the ashtray that once sat onstage. "It would
have a big mound of ashes -- it looked like a French secretary's desk,"
he said. That early version of the Drifters also introduced Peterson
to the concept of a "suitcase" of 24 beers. "I had never seen or heard
of that," she said. "That astounded me."
honing the band's survival instincts early on. "We have been through
so much, from Day One," Peterson said. "Back at Raji's, there was something
going on every week. Somebody's ex would show up, somebody would leave
in tears, somebody would not show up. We should have our own sit-com.
Just wait until we get our ‘Behind the Music' -- it's going to be four
An album was
recorded, but never released. At one point, membership surged to seven.
The earliest lead singers -- Gary Eaton, Ray Ganucheau, Carlo Nuccio
-- eventually drifted away. Cowsill and Holsapple married. Eager for
a change of scenery and affordable housing, they moved to New Orleans
in 1993. Walton and the others eventually followed.
A year later,
they cut their first, self-titled CD, padding a half-dozen originals
with five covers. By the time they recorded their second album, "Vermilion,"
in 1998, drummer/vocalist Nuccio had been replaced by Broussard, formerly
of the Lafayette Cajun rock band The Bluerunners. Initially released
overseas, "Vermilion" was finally picked up for American release by
the boutique Razor & Tie label, one of the few companies willing
to take a chance on a band with multiple singers and songwriters, no
true front person and members all on the far side of 30.
generated reams of critical praise, but most of its songs dated back
some years and were written and arranged before Broussard joined the
band. That made the players all the more eager to make another record.
But real life
intervened. Cowsill and Holsapple's marriage fell apart. Having a young
daughter meant they would still be involved in each other's lives, but
could they continue in the same band?
"When all the
personal stuff came down, it was like, ‘Is this boat going to still
float?' " Holsapple said. "To be absolutely candid, I went through a
lot of soul-searching to decide if it was really what I wanted. And
I realized that it is. This is what makes our hearts beat.
"I could get
along in life with other things, I suppose, but nothing gives me the
sort of joy and fulfillment that this band does. I trust my fellow players
in the Drifters implicitly with the songs that I bring in, and they
trust what I do. That's a hard thing to pass up -- it provides a wonderful
buoyancy for each other. We are a lifeline for each of our friends in
are sometimes strained, but rarely break. "Like any family, there are
times when you are furious, or you don't want to talk to somebody, or
you feel the trust is broken," Peterson said. "But we're pretty good
about going to that person and saying, ‘You know what? You hurt my feelings,'
or whatever it is. It's just human stuff that we try to address as much
as possible. We're not always successful at that, but we work on it."
To silence the
growing chorus of rumors, the band released a brief statement through
Razor & Tie confirming that even though Holsapple and Cowsill's
marriage had ended, both intended to continue in the band. "This way,
we put it out, people knew what happened, there was nothing else to
talk about," Walton said of the logic behind the press release. "It's
over, we're still a band, that's all you need to know."
"That was the
main gist of it," Holsapple said. "We weren't trying to make a big,
Fleetwood Mac-y issue out of it."
"It can be argued that by bringing people's attention to it, we made
it an issue. But we were getting so many inquiries and there were so
many rumors that we figured we'd put out this one statement and say,
"As for the
rest, listen to the record."
is nestled on a pastoral piece of land just outside Lafayette. The Drifters
so enjoyed the experience of making "Vermilion" there amid the fields,
trees, a lake and a river, they knew they would someday return. On Jan.
2, 2001, they set up shop at Dockside with no preconceived notion of
what kind of record they were about to make, or even which songs would
be on it.
"It was like
there was a white piece of canvas," Walton said. "Let's just start painting
and see what it turns out to be."
progressed quickly. Peterson and Mache's guitars meshed instinctively,
with no need to map out individual parts. Broussard drove the songs,
stamping them with his distinct pedigree. Holsapple slipped accordion,
organ, clavinet, banjo and harmonica into the mix, and arranged the
guest horn section that appears on several cuts. Cowsill's voice aches
with longing on "Snow," then bristles with resolve and determination
Such is the
intimate nature of their communication and trust that first takes often
ended up on the finished CD. "Where Does the Time Go?" the Holsapple
composition that closes the album, was rendered by the "boy band" version
of the Drifters, sans Cowsill and Peterson. Recorded multiple times,
the first take proved to be the keeper. "By the time they ‘learned'
the song," Peterson said, "it wasn't as charming."
second take of "Peaceful Waking" was judged to be the best. "I personally
knew that was the correct take," Mache said, "when all the hairs stood
up on my arms and I started crying in the middle of the song, while
we were taping it."
In the end,
Peterson contributed three compositions to "Better Day," Holsapple four
and Cowsill three (she also co-wrote another with Broussard). Walton's
lone composition, "Tomorrow's Gonna Be," dates back more than a decade.
He revealed it to his bandmates only after they prodded him for material.
More prodding persuaded him to sing it, as he had never sung on record
or onstage before.
"I was really
insecure about even bringing it to the band," Walton said. "It was an
older song, and I didn't know if it was going to fit. Then I said, ‘I'm
42 years old, I've never (sung) in my entire life, I will face my fears
and make an attempt to do something I've never done before.' "
What has been
the reaction to his vocal debut? "People think it's Robert or Peter,"
Only after the
album was finished did its unspoken, unconscious theme reveal itself
and make a line from "Tomorrow's Gonna Be" the obvious choice for "Better
song, even the most desperate ones, the darkest ones, had a ray of hope,"
Peterson said. "Every single song has a positive slant somewhere in
"It's a much
broader, wider, more naked album than either of the other two," Mache
said. "Emotions are a little closer to the surface."
listeners not to read too much into those emotions. "A lot of people
will see the emotional layer as a product of the personal stuff that's
happened with everybody in the last year," he said. "It's true, there's
that, but it's also because we're very emotional people and we write
songs that are based on real, honest to God feelings."
Day" in stores, now comes the arduous task of selling it. Family responsibilities
and day jobs mean touring, the chief way to promote a new album, is
limited to short stretches during the summer, when the kids -- there
are five in the extended Drifters family -- are out of school.
Still, the musicians,
who collectively manage their band themselves, are frustrated by the
perception in some quarters that the Drifters are a part-time occupation
or side project.
"We've all been
in this band longer than we've been in any other band," Peterson said.
"We've all worked harder and sacrificed more for this band than we have
for any other band."
"It's a side
project to my life, maybe, and barely that," Walton said. " ‘Daddy,
how come you're not at my baseball game? How come you're not going to
be here to take me to the beach this summer?' It's hard to say that
that is a ‘side project.' I take it very personally when people try
to belittle it as a side project."
The day after
the CD release party at the Howlin' Wolf, the band flew to California
for its first West Coast tour in six years, including a much-anticipated
gig at the fabled Troubadour in West Hollywood. An East Coast swing
is slated for later in the summer.
No longer starry-eyed
twenty-somethings gunning for a life of cash money and Cristal champagne,
their aspirations are more modest: To trade in their cramped van for
a roomier tour bus. Hire a road crew. Pay bills without the crutch of
a day job.
To have any
hope of doing that, they must win new fans with every record and performance.
"Each time we play, we seem to touch people," Peterson said. "It's a
reality, and it's magic, and I respect it.
determined and committed to this. We've been through so much that I
can't imagine anything that is going to break us now. We're that stubborn."
"Some of the stuff that we've had to weather between this record and
the last one would suggest to me that we are doing it for the love of
each other and for the love of the music. We know we're a good band;
the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
"This CD is
a great representative of a ‘Better Day.' Because we've managed to get
through so much together, this is proof positive that there can be one."
The Times-Picayune. Used with permission.
by Neal Weiss
Driftin’ way of life
New Orleans’ supergroup
finally gets its continental due in the States
In a perfect imaginary world, six musicians of a roots/pop collective
all live, eat, sleep and breathe together. In the same bucolic setting
— maybe a big, woodsy house with a fireplace that always burns — do
they rise and start the day with perfect cups of coffee in a living
room where stringed instruments outnumber pieces of furniture. Soon,
outside, they sit lakeside with guitars and mandolins and percussion
amid the colors of a perpetual Louisiana autumn so brilliantly hued
that not even a good psilocybin buzz could improve it. Musical phrases
come naturally, like wind through the trees. They come all day long,
fully inspired, and practically without labor.
Is this heaven? No, it's the Continental Drifters.
One peek at the photo from the inner cover of Vermilion, the New Orleans
band's stirring new effort, and such a setting seemingly comes to life
in full, fairy-tale splendor. Yeah, so real life isn't that perfect
— but if there's a band out there that could ultimately achieve such
a state of Zen, it just might be this group of rock veterans. Theirs
is a story about family, about aging with grace and integrity, about
commitment to their craft, about living a life of music beyond the hit
single, about eyes on a prize more spiritual than material. To hear
vocalist/guitarist Vicki Peterson describe it, the Drifters are like
"a perfectly worn-in piece of furniture that you always head for."
And vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Peter Holsapple: "like your
favorite pair of sneakers that you can slip into and feel like you can
run a mile in them immediately."
Better yet, as Holsapple suggests, it’s about what Emmylou Harris once
spoke of in a snippet recorded for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's landmark
1989 album, Will the Circle Be Unbroken, Vol. 2:
Years ago I had the experience of sitting around in a living room with
a bunch of friends singing and playing, and it was like a spiritual
experience — it was wonderful. I decided then that that's what I wanted
to do with my life, was to play music, to do music. In the making of
records I think over the years, we've all gotten a little too technical,
a little too hung up on getting things perfect, and we've lost the living
room — the living room has gone out of the music. But today I feel like
we got it back."
"I always thought that was a really , really kinda spot-on description
of what we like about music and the Drifters," says Holsapple,
speaking from New Orleans along with Peterson and guitarist Robert Mache.
"This is a band that, for all intents and purposes, if it stayed
in a living room and played to itself for the rest of its collective,
born days, it still wouldn't be too bad. We really just enjoy each other's
Or, as they sing in "Drifters", their emerging soul-sweet
anthem: "We're all drifters/Singers and sisters/Brothers and mothers
and confidantes/We were born alone/We're alone when we're gone/So while
we're here/We might as well just sing along."
* * *
Community has always been a crucial thread in the fabric that has woven
the Continental Drifters together since their inception — even if, eight
years gone by, only bassist Mark Walton remains as a founding member.
The Drifters’ current, and presumably most durable, roster includes
Walton (ex-Dream Syndicate), Holsapple (ex-dB's, ex-sideman for R.E.M.
and Hootie & the Blowfish), Mache (ex-Steve Wynn Band, Sparks),
Peterson (ex-Bangles), Susan Cowsill (of the ’60s sibling band the Cowsills,
after whom the Partridge Family was modeled), and drummer Russ Broussard
(ex- Bluerunners, Terrence Simien's zydeco band). Holsapple and Cowsill
"I think we're all kind of amazed and grateful that we found each
other," says Peterson, and the band's collective decades-long experience
in the music industry no doubt strengthens their bond. Being in a group
such as the dB's, who struggled for years to get in the game only to
find a futile final resting place, or the Bangles, who achieved wild
success but eventually had their souls drained from the experience,
likely gives an artist the resolve to grab hold of the steering wheel
and not let go.
That explains, in part, why they took so long to release Vermilion in
the United States (it’s due in October on Razor & Tie) when it was
issued overseas by German label Blue Rose a full 18 months prior. They
needed to find the right situation instead of inking with just any label
that offered the world to them, of which there were several after the
band stepped off the stage at this year's South By Southwest. They found
it in Razor & Tie, which was responsive to the band's special needs,
tour concerns and guarded ambitions.
Yes, this time, it's different. Sure, the band welcomes success — Peterson,
for one, suggests the Drifters could be the new Fleetwood Mac — but
it's more about chasing their muse. "If this album has a great
long shelf life, which I think it will, that will be the success of
it," says Mache. "Look at Van Morrison's catalog or Neil Young's
catalog; there are albums in there that 20 and 30 years on sound as
current as anything right now."
That's how it has always been, ever since the band formed in Los Angeles
in 1991. Walton had hooked up with New Orleans expatriates Carlo Nuccio
(drums) and Ray Ganucheau (guitar) to form the Continental Drifters,
a named borrowed from a group that Nuccio, formerly of the Subdudes,
once played with back home in the Big Easy. Along with guitarist Gary
Eaton (former Ringling Sisters) and keyboardist Dan McGough (ex-7 Deadly
5 and currently a part of Bob Dylan's touring outfit), this was a band
rooted in the loose-limbed Americana of Little Feat and The Band, and
was instantly worth hearing.
Keep in mind that this was the pre-Nirvana era; L.A. clubs were still
infested with Guns N’ Roses clones and countless troopers of the spandex
nation. The local indie-rock-based underground — a few years earlier
a dizzyingly talented array of punk, cowpunk, new wave and paisley underground
acts — had just about withered and died. But the Drifters rekindled
that lost community through a Tuesday-night residency at the popular
if dingy Hollywood punk/pop club, Raji's. It was a come-one, come-all
atmosphere that showcased not only the formidable talents of the "official"
members but of the countless friends who happened by, including Victoria
Williams, Giant Sand, John Wesley Harding, Freedy Johnston, Syd Straw,
Rosie Flores and Steve Wynn. They played originals, they played a bucketload
of covers, and, on one particularly monstrous evening, they all stepped
aside for a gloriously ragged reunion by Wynn and Walton's former band,
the Dream Syndicate. Holsapple was there around this time too, hopping
onstage to play some keyboards, as were the Psycho Sisters, Cowsill
and Peterson's songwriting duo-in-progress.
"When I first met the Continental Drifters, even as they existed
in 1991, I immediately fell in love. And I just tenaciously stuck to
this band," recalls Peterson, who had been on the road for much
of the ’80s with the Bangles and felt disenfranchised from the local
scene after that band's demise. "I never really felt musically
at home except for that one brief little time in the early ’80s with
these other bands, when we'd go to Long Ryders shows all the time, and
the Dream Syndicate. We went to each other's shows and played on each
other's bills and nobody cared about who was playing first and it was
really a pretty generous musical environment. And that's what Raji's
reminded me of."
Soon, McGough left the band and Holsapple shed his "auxiliary Drifter"
tag for full-time membership. This lineup that released a 7-inch single
for Bob Mould's S.O.L. imprint featuring "Mississippi" and
"Johnny Oops", two twang-soul tracks that were highlights
of the band’s live set. Cowsill and Peterson joined soon after; suddenly,
the Drifters were a seven-headed singer-songwriter monster highly regarded
enough to open for Bob Dylan at the stately Pantages Theatre on Hollywood
Boulevard one night in 1992
Still, the band's casual attitude remained intact. "We would go
up into the hills where Mark and Gary and Carlo lived and play these
songs that we had written to each other," says Holsapple, recalling
his earliest days of Drifterdom that were often whiled away in a house
nestled above the San Fernando Valley. "We'd all sit around with
acoustic guitars and accordions and the bass and people's girlfriends
and a couple cases of beer and a bottle of tequila and whack these songs
* * *
It took several years of metamorphosis to finally amass the current
lineup. In 1997, the Drifters released a 7-inch single of Peterson's
rollicking road-trip tune "Christopher Columbus Transcontinental
Highway", backed with a spirited take on Richard Thompson's "Meet
On The Ledge". By then, several changes had taken place, much of
which stemmed from the decision by Nuccio and Ganucheau to return to
New Orleans in 1993. Holsapple and Cowsill decided New Orleans would
be a better place to nest than Los Angeles and followed suit.
Walton was also game, and, while Eaton decided against the relocation
because of fatherhood considerations (he later formed the like-minded
but painfully undernourished Kingsize), Peterson relocated too, albeit
only after spending two years commuting between the two cities. There
were more changes to come: Ganucheau left for health reasons, replaced
by Mache, yet another talented guitarist within the Drifters' commonwealth.
Finally, after a self-titled release in 1994 on New Orleans label Monkey
Hill that was a decent, if disappointing, affair of murky production
quality, Nuccio departed. Ultimately he was replaced on drums by Broussard.
But time was taking its toll. This revolving door, coupled with the
Drifters' overall lack of output — just one CD, two singles and two
tribute-album contributions through 1997 — suggested a band that was
either underachieving, underwhelmed, or, in the least, too casual to
be taken seriously, especially in light of the collective talent it
But that issue was put six feet under with Vermilion. Less Little Feat
and The Band in favor of the Mamas & the Papas and Fairport Convention,
the new album finally fulfills the promise that has always hovered over
the band. Graceful, poetic, intimate and deliciously harmonized, but
still plenty rock-minded, Vermilion demonstrates not only the strength
and reach of the band, but also its uncanny ability to unify the vision
of four songwriters and six strong musical personalities.
Granted, the loss of Nuccio's ghost-of-Levon rasp, originally one of
the Drifters' most appealing charms, is to be mourned. But there’s also
plenty of revitalization, including a more massive version of "Christopher
Columbus Transcontinental Highway"; the bittersweet jangle-pop
of "The Rain Song"; the fragile "Heart, Home"; the
buoyant, Celtic-tinged "Watermark"; and the indie-rockish
barn-burner "Don't Do What I Did". These songs are written
by Peterson, Cowsill/Peterson, Mache, Peterson and Holsapple, respectively,
but they’re all performed with a cohesiveness that is the hallmark of
It's a point not lost on Holsapple. "The synchronous behavior of
six wildly different individuals each playing a different instrument
sort of functioning as a different card in the deck, that's pretty amazing,"
Vermilion is also an album that cries of wisdom, as on the nearly hymnal
"Drifters", or the tender, commitment-oriented "I Want
To Learn To Waltz With You". Holsapple's epic "Daddy Just
Wants It To Rain" portrays, novella-like, the life and family of
a broken man; Cowsill's "Spring Day In Ohio" relates the fractured
upbringing of a girl, replete with the hard-lesson chorus: "This
is your life, how do you like it so far?"
Maybe most striking is "Who We Are, Where We Live", Peterson's
haunting, eye-of-the-hurricane attempt to come to grips with her fiance's
death from leukemia. Ignited by Mache's Crazy Horse-like shards of lead
guitar, Peterson sings: "You're headed down the highway/Suddenly
jacknifed/When somebody blows a hole in your life/Now the bed's too
big and the pillow's too small/And you gotta try and make sense of it
all/You are one of us."
"You get over it, you move on with your life, you will eventually
not be in classic grieving mode,” says Peterson of the song and the
experience. "Eventually you will stop breaking into tears in the
middle of the produce section, but you are never the same.…It's one
of those songs I completely consider a gift from God. It showed up."
Holsapple might consider the band a gift from God as well. More than
once he refers to it as a "reward," marveling at the fact
that, as a fortysomething musician, he gets to be part of a project
with co-members he "adores." By no means is it an easy life:
There are day jobs to tend to (Holsapple, for one, has a day gig at
Borders Books & Music), children to provide for, screwy schedules
to accommodate. And that Fleetwood Mac comparison Peterson offers —
it's not just because there's several singer-songwriters in the band,
if you know what I mean.
Yes, the Drifters have their issues, but they also have their hard-fought
payoffs. Like Vermilion, like backing 13 talented artists at the Sandy
Denny tribute in Brooklyn last November, like resurrecting the love-in
that is the Tuesday-night residency at the Howlin' Wolf, a New Orleans
"It has that kind of, um, healing nature," says Holsapple,
"such that you could be having the worst day of your life and the
minute you get up onstage with the Drifters and hit that first chord
— assuming everybody's in tune [laughs] — it's this kind of juggernaut
of emotion that gets you from one end of the show to the next. And it
just kind of buoys your spirit. It's a real spiritual experience for
a rock band."
No Depression contributing editor Neal Weiss often looks back fondly
on the days of wine and roses that was the L.A. club scene of the pre-Axl
’80s. In fact, it's very possible he wrote this article just as an excuse
to invoke the Dream Syndicate in print one more time.
by Brett Milano
Cellars By Starlight
last time I saw the Continental Drifters perform, I was standing in
a mud soaked field, watching thousands of people get wet, and hearing
classic rock and roll -- and I wasn't anywhere near Woodstock. I was
in New Orleans, where most of the band is currently based and where
their set at the Jazz & Heritage Festival happened to follow the
weekend's surprise flood. Fortunately they had a tune called "When It
Rains," which opened an hour's worth of memorable songs with a regional
twist and harmonies to die for. For the finale, the four lead singers
clustered around a mike and did the Mamas & the Papas' bit of giddy
pop romance, "Dedicated to the One I Love," while the sun went down
over the field. Pretty damn inspiring.
That's one reason why the Continental Drifters are close to my heart.
Here's a few others: Because they include members of some of my previous
favorite bands. (Those four lead singers are ex-dB's leader Peter Holsapple,
ex-Bangles guitarist Vicki Peterson, session drummer Carlo Nuccio, and
former preteen crush Susan Cowsill; also in the band are guitarist Robert
Mache and ex-Dream Syndicate bassist Mark Walton.) Because they combine
quirky pop with heartfelt country-rock as well as anyone I've heard
in years; think of them as Big Star having big fun at Big Pink. And
because they haven't yet played Boston (and probably won't until next
year), so local fans can still feel like part of an exclusive club.
But the club just got less exclusive, because they've finally made an
album. Continental Drifters (on Ichiban/Monkey Hill) may not be the
definitive Drifters album (ot's half-covers and saves some live standouts
for next time), but it captures a good deal of the band's magic and
personality. Each of the songwriters gets a turn in the spotlight. Nuccio's
two tunes hit a solid Little Feat/Band groove. Peterson's "Mixed Messages"
is more countrified than anything she wrote for the Bangles, but no
less delightful. The band's country side comes out strongest, but the
opening "Get Over It" (written by Walton, sung by Cowsill, and making
great use of those pop choruses that lodges in your head and doesn't
leave. As does Holsapple's "Invisible Boyfriend," a ghostly waltz that
scales the same heights he hit regularly with the dB's. Covers range
from the pure-pop thrills of the Box Tops' "Soul Deep" to the mystic
overtones of Gram Parsons's "Song For You." And Cowsill's lead on "I
Can't Make It Alone" (pinched from Dusty Springfield's cult classic
album Dusty In Memphis) is an emotional outburst of the first order.
My own memories of the band go back two years ago to my time in Los
Angeles, which was made a lot more fun by the band's Tuesday-nights
shows at Raji's (the closest thing to the Middle East on Hollywood Boulevard,
before the last big earthquake shut it down). A lot of friendships were
formed around those shows, and the best of the local pop underground
-- Victoria Williams, Steve Wynn, a visiting Giant Sand -- stopped in
regularly. The Drifters' membership changed so often that nobody was
ever sure who'd be in the band that week, but their sets ranged from
bar-band heaven to drunken shambles. (I've got a blurry memory of a
10-minute version of Traffic's "Dear Mr. Fantasy," played for some reason
that seemed good at the time.) I made a point of seeing the band the
night before I left town; that show closed with a tune called "The Pope,"
about driving cross-country with a maniac at the wheel. I rated a dedication
that night; it was the best going-away present I got.
More recently, a handful of Bostonians saw the band when they played
an after hours show that closed this year's South by Sothwest conference
in Austin. Taking the stage after 2 a.m. at Marcia Ball's gorgeous open-air
club at La Zona Risa, they played a set heavy on romantic, dancing-under-the-stars
tunes (assuming you can fit "Wild Thing" into that category), and were
still playing when I headed home with a friend the next day at noon,
we couldn't resist sneaking a look into Zona Rosa, just on the off-chance
that they might still be going.
Reached by phone from Los Angeles, Peterson says that being a Drifter
is nothing like being a Bangle. (That band, you'll recall, made a great
first album but never recovered from the left-field hit "Walk Like An
Egyptian") "Not that I didn't have fun with the Bangles, but the whole
idea was to make music for Top-40 radio --even in the beginning, when
our vision of Top-40 was to sound like a sped-up version of the Seeds.
By the end we were so taken care of that we didn't know what we were
"The Drifters pulled me out of a hard time," she says. "After the Bangles'
demise I had no idea what I wanted to do, if doing music was still worth
the heartache. I started hanging out at the bachelor pad where Mark
and Carlo lived, and they'd sit around the couch with an acoustic guitar
-- which I hadn't done in years. I was completely stymied and nervous,
and we went out and played the club that night."
Peterson also works separately with Cowsill as the Psycho Sisters, whose
first single gets released on SOL, next week. Meanwhile, Cowsill still
performs occasionally with her family ( yes, those Cowsills); Nuccio
has a few session gigs (he played drums on both Tori Amos albums); and
Holsapple's about to release the final, long-lost dB's album from 1988,
and may even tour with some version of dB's to support it. And in a
real strange turn of history, Peterson is joining the Go-Go's -- but
only temporarily, to replace the pregnant Charlotte Caffey on a reunion
tour in November. "One all-girl band from the '80s wasn't enough, I
must have it all," she laughs. "I figure the Bangles will reunite in
the year 2005, so Charlotte can step in if I'm preggers by then."
All of which would make the Drifters a hard band to operate, but Peterson
says that love will keep 'em together. "This band does more arguing
than anyone I've ever seen, and I'm from a family of four kids," she
notes. "But it's all encased in love. We can break into arguments at
rehearsals and say, 'But I love you anyway.' 'Yeah, I love you too,