Driftin' Way Of Life
No Depression Magazine
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 staved 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 alwavs 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 Wvnn Band, Sparks), Peterson (ex-Bangles), Susan Cowsill (of the '60s sibling band the Cowsills, after whom the Partridge Familv was modeled), and drummer Russ Broussard (ex- Bluerunners, Terrence Simien's zvdeco 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 Vermilon in the United States (it's due in October on Razor & Tie) when it was issued overseas bv German label Blue Rose a full 18 months prior. They needed to find the right situation instead of inking with just anv 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 lime, 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
DOWN OFF THE ROOF: Standing (l. to r.) Vicki Peterson, Robert Mache, Russ Broussard, Susan Cowsill; seated (l. to r.) Mark Walton, Peter Holsapple.
LEGENDS: (1) The dB's (I. to r.) Gene Holder, Peter Holscpple, Will Rigby, and Jeff Bininato, 1987; (2) The Cowsills on NBC j (I. to r.) Susie, Bill, Barb, "Today" host Hugh Downs, Barry and Bob, 1968; (3) The Dream Syndicate (I. to r.) Karl Precoda,
Dennis Duck, Steve Wynn, and Mark Walton; (4) The Bangles (top to bottom) Debbi Peterson, Vicki Peterson, Annette Zilinskas, I and Susanna Hoffs .
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 catalog or Neil Young's catalog; there are albums in there that 20 and 30 years on sound as current as any thing 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, formerlv of the Subddudes, 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 vears earlier a dizzingly 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 areound 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 Dntiers, 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 "Johnnv 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 that 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 ; 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 fiancee'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 sihger-song-writers in the band, if you knowwhat 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."