When word got around that the Continental Drifters were re-forming, the first question fans probably asked was: Which Continental Drifters?
The beloved roots-pop collective that was a fixture in New Orleans from around 1997 through the turn of the millennium? The earlier, all-guy lineup that held court weekly at the Hollywood hotspot Raji’s before the move here? Or some novel combination of the two?
The answer this time around is: All of the above. For the first and probably only time, all 10 official members of the various Drifters lineups will join forces for two shows, at Tipitina’s September 12 and in Los Angeles a week later.
Marking the release of the career-spanning double CD Drifted: The Beginning & Beyond (Omnivore), it’s also the first live shows by any version of the band since a one-time reunion (of the New Orleans lineup) at Carrollton Station in 2009.
Appearing at Tip’s will be the core of the Los Angeles Drifters (singer/guitarists Gary Eaton and Ray Ganucheau, drummer Carlo Nuccio) and the New Orleans version (guitarist Robert Mache, singers/guitarists Vicki Peterson and Susan Cowsill, drummer Russ Broussard)—plus bassist Mark Walton, the only one there from start to finish; and multi-instrumentalist Peter Holsapple, who was there nearly as long (he replaced founding keyboardist Danny McGough early on, and yes, McGough will be there too).
All seem to agree that playing music will be the easy part—getting everybody together has been the hard part. The members are now divided among four cities; a couple are out on their own tours (Cowsill on the Happy Together package show with her brothers). The 10 players include two former couples, one going-strong couple, a pair of stepsisters, a bunch of close friends and even a couple of folks who haven’t met.
“Let’s just say I’ve been on three-month tours that I haven’t put this much time into,” says Carlo Nuccio, who wound up tag-teaming with his replacement Russ Broussard to land them at Tip’s. “It’s been insane. One venue was too big, one was too small, and there was always somebody whose schedule didn’t work. Then Susan’s tour got extended a week and we had to flip the dates. Then the date at Tipitina’s opened and it somehow fell into place. It’s pretty shocking that everyone turned out to be available.”
Even when there weren’t quite so many people onstage, the Continental Drifters were always a little larger than life. To really understand the band, you have to go back to the Raji’s days—at the time they seemed the last of the classic Los Angeles country-rock bands, with songs that dared to be a bit mythic. Eaton’s “Vatican Blues,” about a manic cross-country drive, was one of the dependable night-closing anthems, as was Nuccio’s outlaw song “Sidesteppin’ the Fire.”
Though not officially in the band yet, Peterson and Cowsill usually wound up onstage; when the mood was right they’d pull out an acoustic guitar and cover “Dedicated to the One I Love.” Ganucheau had the aching tenor voice for the romantic numbers. Part of the mystique was that they were a piece of New Orleans that somehow landed in Hollywood; there was even a Mardi Gras show where everyone was in drag. Nuccio, then well into his wilder days, was capable of playing a set perfectly in the pocket and then falling off the drum stool.
“The vibe was great—Nobody cared, do what you want,” recalls Eaton by phone from Los Angeles. “It was like Cheers for the Hollywood crowd—our dive place where we all hung out. And for people who didn’t hang out there, we dragged ’em down to our level. You could walk in and see Bruce Springsteen in the front bar with a beer. We went onstage, flew by the seat of our pants and shit just happened—I hate to keep using the word magical, but it was. We all had the same record collection and whatever you didn’t have, someone would turn you onto.”
“To my mind, all the hugely special moments happened at the “bachelor pad” that we called the place we lived in,” says Nuccio. “You have to realize that we never had a rehearsal, in terms of setting up a drum kit and everybody plugging in—that never happened. Instead we sat on my couch or in a beanbag chair and just played songs, like Bob Dylan in the basement.” The original lineup made an album that wasn’t released at the time; the first disc of Drifted collects most of those sessions.
It was Nuccio who proposed moving the band to New Orleans, after living through the Rodney King riots. This roughly coincided with the band losing all three of its front men: Ganucheau (a local native who’s lately been playing with Tommy Malone) had pressing health issues; Eaton stayed behind with his family. And Nuccio took time to shake his addictions.
“I was getting deep in the throes, and probably having the time of my life doing it.” Fortunately another three were waiting in the wings: Peterson and Cowsill had perfected their stunning harmonies while Holsapple, who’d been a non-singing utility man in the first lineup, took his place in the frontline. Broussard came in from the Bluerunners and played like he’d been there all along. So classic pop harmony joined country-rock as the main reference points, and the all-night shows moved from Raji’s to the Howlin’ Wolf and Carrolton Station.
“It didn’t seem to be that different,” Walton says. “Losing Carlo was hard, and we might not have continued if we didn’t find someone as good as Russ. Every time we lost someone, it was like losing an arm—and yet we kept the same band ideals, we still mixed up all the different genres. We had the friendship, the way we interfaced each other. The only real effort was our stubborn Drifters thing: We knew it was special, and we knew that we needed to hold on for as long as possible. If anyone else got involved it would go away—that’s why we didn’t trust record companies and we didn’t trust managers.”
One surprise toward the end of their tenure was how deep they got into English folk-rock, especially Fairport Convention. Their final release (the mini-album Listen, Listen) was all Fairport songs (and solo tracks by its members Richard Thompson and Sandy Denny) and they were the house band for a Denny tribute show in New York. Holsapple instigated that project, though the band fell right in.
“When I first heard “Walk Awhile” on the free A&M Records sampler Friends when I was 13, it made me a diehard admirer of the band and its offshoot projects,” Holsapple says. “And it was an excuse for me to get to sing Richard and Linda Thompson songs with Susan, who I thought would tear them up. [They later covered the Thompsons’ Shoot Out the Lights during Cowsill’s Covered in Vinyl series]. I’m no Richard—though some may say I’m a dick—but I really enjoyed getting to sing those sad songs of explosive loss.” The Fairport-related material is on the second disc of Drifted, which includes some (but by no means all) of the band’s wide-ranging covers.
The Drifters went through well-documented, Fleetwood Mac-style shakeups toward the end—the details of which are on their dark and haunting Better Day album—but the friendships endured, and to some extent it was inevitable that the band would get back together eventually.
Last year Holsapple released an online track, “No Better”—not coincidentally, one of his best songs in years—that featured both Cowsill and Broussard. You don’t even need to be a Drifters fan to get a bit teary over this one: “There never was a better time, and no finer bunch of friends/ A time and a place and a different space, till it fell apart in our hands.”
So it’s no surprise that nobody’s saying definitively that the two upcoming shows will be the last ever. “I rule nothing out now, and I never thought on a logistical level it would be possible,” Nuccio says. “Just a year ago someone mentioned us getting together and I said ‘Good luck with that’.” Adds Walton.
“Everybody feels that this should happen, and we won’t know the rest until we get into the room together. Will there be friction and arguing? Sure. Because that’s what brothers and sisters do.”