Corrections or additions?

This article by Richard J. Skelly was prepared for the July 4,

2001 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Coast to Coast Drifters

Unlike the Beatles or the Police — bands that made

magnificent albums at great personal expense, complete with hairy

temper tantrums, strained relations between band mates, and generally

frayed nerves in the recording studio — the Continental Drifters

operate more or less as one big happy family.

"It ends up being quite a democratic process," says vocalist

Vicki Peterson, from a stop home in Los Angeles, when she explains

the band’s modus operandi in the recording studio. "Maybe it’s

more of a socialist process. It’s all for the good of the state —

the state being the Continental Drifters,"

For their latest album, "Better Day," released on June 5 by

the independent Razor and Tie Music label, the group chose an

exceptional

facility, Dockside Studios in Maurice, Louisiana. Set beside the

Mississippi

River in rural southwest Louisiana, the studio even provides its own

tugboat for short rides when the musicians need a break from

recording.

The Continental Drifters were formed in 1991 in Los Angeles as a

casual

circle of songwriters who would meet on Monday nights at a house in

Studio City. The band would play out on Tuesday nights at Raji’s,

and one of their favorite things to do at this informal club residency

was to back up other musicians who were passing through town, explains

Peterson. The band, which includes a few Crescent City natives, has

been based in New Orleans for the last five years. Its members are

Vicki Peterson (formerly of the Bangles) and Susan Cowsill on vocals

and guitars; Mark Walton and Robert Mache on acoustic and electric

guitars; Peter Holsapple on keyboards, banjo, and harmonica; and Russ

Broussard on drums and percussion. All the band mates sing, and they

trade vocals and harmonies throughout their eclectic recordings and

live shows. Although Peter Holsapple, the band’s keyboardist, was

married to vocalist Susan Cowsill, the couple is now divorced but

remain good friends. They have to be on tour with the band, sharing

a van to travel throughout the lower 48.

The band’s first and second albums, "Continental

Drifters" and "Vermilion," caught the ears of critics

all over the country for their sheer virtuosity. Fortunately, Razor

and Tie Music, a quality, New York-based record company, has reissued

the band’s first two albums. Predictably, college and public radio

station programmers love "Better Day" — as do the critics.

It’s a sad commentary on the state of New York radio right now that

there is no commercial station in New York that can play "Better

Day." Instead, the band is relegated to Vin Scelsa’s show,

"Idiot’s

Delight," on Saturday nights on Fordham University’s station.

Scelsa used to DJ at the blockbuster WNEW-FM, which, since the

mid-1970s,

has gone downhill from brilliant DJ-centered programming to mostly

all talk.

"You know, we can change the world," jokes Peterson,

"maybe

we can start a populist revolt," she suggests while commiserating

about the horrid state of New York’s FM commercial band.

In truth, what’s needed are some brassy, media-savvy, musically

knowledgeable

investors to give the sophisticated urban and suburban listeners

around

New York and New Jersey a radio station that delivers what Continental

Drifters deliver at every live show: an eclectic mix of tunes with

a little humor thrown in.

The tracks on "Better Day" encompass many styles: classic

rhythm and blues and ’60s soul, country music, rockabilly, classic

pop ballads, and New Orleans funk.

The band members’ influences, she explains, include Hank Williams

and the people before Hank Williams, but also the earliest American

folk music, bluegrass and Celtic music, and bands that took those

Celtic music roots, like Fairport Convention.

"We were very inspired by them," she says, "so we find

ourselves covering several Richard Thompson and Sandy Denny

songs."

She adds the influence of American and British pop of the 1960s and

1970s, "everything from Paul Revere and the Raiders to the Kinks

and the Beatles."

Asked to compare and contrast the once-hot and bustling

singer-songwriter

and club scene in Los Angeles with what’s available now in the

Crescent

City, Peterson acknowledges that the L.A. scene today is not as

vibrant

as it was in the early 1990s.

"I would say New Orleans is a very healthy environment right now

for singers and songwriters of all kinds. There are kinds of

opportunities

to get out there and play," she says. The scene "is very low

pressure in a lot of ways. The idea isn’t to go out and score a high-

paying record contract. The idea is to go out and play a better song

than you did last time."

The Drifters, as Peterson calls the band, released their

first album in 1994 on Monkey Hill Records, a small Crescent City

label. But they’ve been building a following among the music

intelligentsia

by touring the U.S. and Canada at selected venues that are frequented

by fans of alt-country music, or the newer ‘country’ music that

emerged

in the 1990s, the stuff that doesn’t have much of a place on Nashville

radio because it borrows too much from rock ‘n’ roll.

Rolling Stone magazine raved about "Vermilion," the band’s

1998 album, and one AP critic said of "Vermilion": "it’s

not only a great album, it is the kind of rock ‘n’ roll album barely

made anymore, the product of a collective vision – a real band –

rather

than the mind of one singer-songwriter…the best album of the

year."

Magazines like ‘No Depression,’ which cover the alt-country and

roots-rock

scene, have embraced the Continental Drifters.

"I don’t know that we really fit in there," Peterson

acknowledges,

referring to today’s alternative country scene, "yet, we don’t

fit into so many other slots, maybe it’s the closest fit. I think

the alt-country world has expanding parameters and we’re somewhere

on the fringe."

One critic compared "Better Day" to Fleetwood Mac’s classic,

groundbreaking studio album, "Rumours." "I find that

interesting

on many levels. I hope we can sell a fraction of as many records as

that sold," Peterson says, laughing.

Of the band’s process for "Better Day," Peterson says,

"I’m

not sure how it works, but it works very well: it involves stepping

forward at that very moment when one’s talents are needed most."

"We used to have an old Pittsburgh Pirates cap that had a P on

it. The deal was, whoever was wearing that cap was the producer. If

everyone was yammering at the same time, you didn’t have the floor

until you were actually wearing the cap! Now, we have a virtual cap,

and it’s understood," she says, "but when we first started

recording, you had to have the cap on your head to be heard."

Doing things by committee is not the quickest way to record an album;

yet in spite of that, the band recorded and mixed the album in 15

days at Dockside Studios. The recording process included bringing

in a vanload full of horn players and other session players from New

Orleans.

Peterson, born and raised in Los Angeles, the son of an aerospace

executive father and a housewife mother who raised four kids, spent

nine years with the Bangles, a classic 1980s all-girl pop band. Like

everyone else in the Continental Drifters, Peterson trades lead

vocals.

All of the group’s members write their own songs and bring them to

the rehearsal studio.

Peterson says the Drifters are discovering they have a small but

growing

following, including in places like central and northern California,

"where we’d see the same faces popping up at shows hundreds of

miles away."

"We rarely play the same set. We have a cookie tin full of strips

of Velcro with names of songs on them," Peterson said, "I’m

telling you, I don’t know how many there are, but there are enough

to fill several shows."

At live shows, the band mates trade lead vocals, depending on who

wrote the song. The band’s performance at the Court Tavern should

be akin to an old-fashioned hootenanny. Or think of it as a guitar

pull with amplifiers.

"As much as possible, the vocals are spread out pretty

evenly,"

she explains. "Hey, we’re six songwriters and we all need to have

a forum for our music."

— Richard J. Skelly

Continental Drifters , Court Tavern, 124 Church Street,

New Brunswick, 732-545-7265. $7. Thursday, July 5, 10 p.m.


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