P R E S S                                                                                          

The Times Picayune June 15, 2001 (Cover story from the Lagniappe)
LA New Times June 7, 2001
Offbeat June 2000 issue (Cover Story)
No Depression Magazine Sept.-Oct. 1999
The Boston Phoenix Sept.16 1994

LA New Times
By Andrew Marcus

Hate the Drifters

The saga of an L.A. band's blissful drift south.
If 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.
It 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.
"Everybody 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."
Meanwhile Peterson, reeling from the alienating show biz the Bangles had become, found family in the Continental Drifters.
"It 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' together."
For 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."
And 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.
But 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.
Taking 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 Los Angeles.
"The 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.
This 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!"
In 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 one."
Not 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.'"
The 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 positions.
Meanwhile, 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?
But 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."
Asked 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."
"We get to open for 'em," adds Holsapple, referring to the joint show scheduled for later this month in San Diego.
First 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.

The Times-Picayune
By Keith Spera


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.

Drifters keyboardist/accordionist 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 that afternoon.

"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.

The Drifters' 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.

But Cowsill 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 covers.

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.

"Without sounding 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."


Drifting together

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.

"We included 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.

To Holsapple, 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.' "

Determined 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.

Smoking and 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."

Drama abounded, 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 hours."

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.

"Vermilion" 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 the band."

Those lifelines 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."

Said Peterson, "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, ‘That's it.'

"As for the rest, listen to the record."


Better days ahead

Dockside Studio 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."

The recording 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 on "Someday."

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."

Similarly, the 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," Walton said.

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 Day"‘s title.

"Every single 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 there."

"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."

Holsapple cautions 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."

Drifters on tour

With "Better 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.

"Everyone is 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."

Said Holsapple, "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.


No Depression magazine
Sept.-Oct. 1999

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 music immensely."

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 are married.

"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 into existence."

* * *

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 possessed.

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 this band.

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," he says.
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 club.

"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.


The Boston Phoenix
Sept.16 1994
by Brett Milano

Cellars By Starlight

The 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 doing.

"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, you fucker.'"