Continental Drifters – Driftin’ way of life
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.