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
facility, Dockside Studios in Maurice, Louisiana. Set beside the
River in rural southwest Louisiana, the studio even provides its own
tugboat for short rides when the musicians need a break from
The Continental Drifters were formed in 1991 in Los Angeles as a
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,
Delight," on Saturday nights on Fordham University’s station.
Scelsa used to DJ at the blockbuster WNEW-FM, which, since the
has gone downhill from brilliant DJ-centered programming to mostly
"You know, we can change the world," jokes Peterson,
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
investors to give the sophisticated urban and suburban listeners
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
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
and club scene in Los Angeles with what’s available now in the
City, Peterson acknowledges that the L.A. scene today is not as
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
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
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
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 –
than the mind of one singer-songwriter…the best album of the
Magazines like ‘No Depression,’ which cover the alt-country and
scene, have embraced the Continental Drifters.
"I don’t know that we really fit in there," Peterson
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
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,
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
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
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
following, including in places like central and northern California,
"where we’d see the same faces popping up at shows hundreds of
"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
she explains. "Hey, we’re six songwriters and we all need to have
a forum for our music."
— Richard J. Skelly
New Brunswick, 732-545-7265. $7.
Corrections or additions?
This page is published by PrincetonInfo.com
— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.