The Continental Drifters Return Home
If a band can be described as both legendary and unknown, it would be the Continental Drifters. Featuring members of bands like Bangles, the Cowsills, the dB’s, and the Dream Syndicate, the Continental Drifters began in a dingy Hollywood bar in 1991 and dissolved in post-Katrina New Orleans. It featured, depending on the day, three to four singer-songwriters and could effortlessly slip in and out of every type of music that is now described as Americana. The Drifters released three critically acclaimed albums on tiny to small labels. Yes, they were big in Germany, but pretty much ignored at home, except for a small but fervent following.
It was this small but fervent following, however, that welcomed them like long-lost friends at the two “homecoming” concerts they performed at the compact Morgan-Wixson Theater in Santa Monica, California. The pair of shows, fundraisers for the Autism Think Tank, featured all ten of the main Drifters. There were the two New Orleans ex-pats, drummer Carlo Nucci and guitarist Rey Ganucheau, who started the group in L.A. with local guitarist Gary Eaton and ex-Dream Syndicate bassist Mark Walton — the only original member who stayed until the end. Keyboardist Danny McGough — an early but short-term member — was there, as were former dB’s frontman Peter Holsapple, Vicki Peterson of Bangles fame, and Susan Cowsill, who joined the group during its L.A. era. Then there were also the New Orleans-era additions: drummer Russ Broussard and guitarist Robert Mache.
Many reunion shows often feel like nostalgia-fests, with a group dutifully serving up their hits. This concert, however, was different. First off, the Drifters, for better or for worse, didn’t have any hits. But, more significantly, these ten musicians had never really shared the stage together until the week before at a New Orleans gig. Not only was the crowd excited to see them perform, the musicians themselves also were excited about playing together. Whatever hard feelings had existed between them in the past — the band members had their share of relationship and health issues — seemed to have dissipated with time. The concert was punctuated by plenty of on-stage hugs, smiles, and laughter. While there was a loose, casual vibe, with musicians wandering on and off the stage, the performances felt like this group had never stopped playing together.
All of the guitarists – Mache, Ganucheau, and Eaton – were in fine form but they also played with, and off of, each other very well. On several occasions, all three took turns peeling off a guitar solo during a song without it devolving to one-upmanship. Nucci and Broussard generally alternated handling drum duties, each injecting their own particular New Orleans funkiness. Mark Walton provided the musical anchor on bass, and fittingly enough stood center stage throughout the show.
As strong as the playing was, it was the vocals that formed the concert’s emotional soul. Harmony singing, always central to the band, rang true. The way that Peterson, Eaton, Cowsill, and Holsapple wonderfully harmonized on “Dedicated to the One I Love” matched The Mamas and the Papas’ high standard. While every singer got their time in the spotlight, Cowsill really got to reveal with her powerhouse vocals. Her singing on “Peaceful Waking” was a particular standout.
This night also served as a reminder of just how many wonderful songs the Drifters had. Eaton’s “Mr. Everything” and “Green” continued L.A.’s legacy of country rock. Nucci’s “Side Steppin’ the Fire,” “Here I Am,” and his co-write with Ganucheau “The Mississippi,” suggested a band bred in the Bayou. Ganucheau’s own “I Didn’t Want to Live” was a real heartbreaker of a ballad. Peterson gave the band the chance to rock out during her tunes “Na Na” and “Way of the World.”
The Drifters, from their beginnings at Raji’s, always enjoyed covering tunes, and this night was no exception. Besides “Dedicated,” they tackled Michael Nesmith’s “Some of Shelley’s Blues,” Gram Parsons’ “A Song For You,” and Danny Whitten’s “Look at All the Things.” Cowsill made the old Dusty Springfield hit “I Can’t Make It Alone” her own, while partnering with Holsapple on a stomping version of the Box Tops’ “Soul Deep.” Eaton and Peterson, meanwhile, delivered their own sublime duet on the soul classic, “You Don’t Miss Your Water.”
One song that the Continental Drifters wisely saved for the end of the concert was their would-be anthem, “Drifters.” This story-of-the-band tune contains a chorus that was so appropriate for this evening, in particular:
We are all drifters
Singers and sisters
Brothers and lovers
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.
These words epitomize the band’s up-and-down journey as well as the joyfulness expressed from the stage, which filled up the theater as the audience sang along.
Earlier this summer, Omnivore Recordings released a compilation titled Drifted: In the Beginning & Beyond, which included one disc of material from the band’s Los Angeles existence and another with cover tunes mainly recorded after they moved to New Orleans. It’s a great collection of music that provides a fine introduction to the Continental Drifters.