Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Musically Adrift

The Continental Drifters wander the American sonic landscape from their New Orleans base.

By Mark Jordan

FEBRUARY 7, 2000:  As far as supergroups go, the Continental Drifters aren't as high profile as Crosby, Stills, & Nash or even the Power Station. But a supergroup they are, nonetheless.

The band began in Southern California in the early '90s as a loose confederation of musicians, most of whom had been prominent players in Los Angeles' paisley underground neo-psychedelic scene of the previous decade. Bassist Mark Walton was a former member of the Dream Syndicate; guitarist Vicki Peterson was one of the sisters who helped drive the Bangles to chart success; Susan Cowsill had gotten her start as part of her flower-power pop family band; and guitarist Peter Holsapple was well-known to '80s alternative rock fans as a member of one of the decade's seminal jangly, psychedelic rock acts, the dBs. In their new incarnation, however, these new bandmates sounded nothing like their former selves.

"The band started as a sort of full-on writers' workshop kind of idea," says Walton. "We would sit around the living room and play songs for each other. Eventually, we just looked up at each other and said, 'Hey, that's nice. Let's go play a gig somewhere.'"

Soon the quartet was playing a regular Tuesday night gig in L.A. The sound that was taking hold over the group was less psychedelic than the players' past would suggest. What was emerging was something that is only vaguely labeled as Americana, a sort of folk rock mishmash that suggested, in spirit, the Band. And despite being a group completely made up of individual songwriters, the band was finding its own voice, making it able to digest the diverse material of its various tunesmiths and spit out something else that was entirely and uniquely the Continental Drifters.

"This band has a way of making material its own," says Walton. "A Peter Holsapple song on his solo album sounds completely different than a Peter Holsapple song on a Continental Drifters album. It just undergoes this organic transference, and it sounds like the Drifters."

In the pop-and-metal world of L.A., however, the Drifters didn't exactly belong. By coincidence, a series of familial ties and obligations brought some members of the group to New Orleans, and rather than break up, the rest of the band followed behind. In 1994, the band cut its eponymous debut in New Orleans. Along the way they also acquired two new members: Walton's ex-Dream Syndicate bandmate Robert Maché and veteran Big Easy percussionist Russ Broussard.

When not on the road, the Drifters spent much of their time trying to settle into their new home. They played the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, and eventually revived their old tradition with a regular Tuesday-night gig at Howlin' Wolf whenever they're in town. After six years, the Drifters have been wholly embraced by the New Orleans music community. They are currently nominated for best band and best album in the Offbeat music awards, presented by the city's music monthly. And the city's players are won over as well. At a recent Howlin' Wolf gig marking the release of their new CD, members of such local groups as Mulebone, Meter Way, and Flatware took over the stage to play their own interpretations of favorite Drifters songs.

"That was really cool; that was really special," says Walton. "That's when I knew we had really become accepted by these tremendous musicians."

After four years of touring, in 1998 the Drifters finally went back in the studio. The place was a studio situated on Louisiana's Vermilion Bayou, and the result was the album, Vermilion, an album of gently rocking folk rock that shows hints of the influence of the band's residency in New Orleans. Released abroad in 1998, the album had trouble finding a domestic distributor.

"The other labels wanted to say, 'Put the chicks up front. Give us a face to sell. Change this sound,'" says Maché. "But the folks at Razor & Tie got us. They took the album on face values and said, 'We want to release this.'"

As a result the Drifters were named in Rolling Stone's readers and critics polls and earned the aforementioned Offbeat nods.The band may not ever have the success of the members' earlier projects, and in New Orleans they are certainly out of the music industry mainstream. But the members of the Continental Drifters are content to live a slower-paced life where they can make the music they want to make with the people they want to make it with.

"After a lot of member changes, we're all happy with this group," say Walton. "This line-up is a strong link. It's like when you shake the little globe with the snow and it's chaotic for a while with all the snow flying around, but eventually everything settles into place and is calm."

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