For most of 1992, Tuesday nights in Hollywood meant that the Continental Drifters could be found on the stage of Raji’s. Instigated the previous year by drummer/singer Carlo Nuccio (who had been in an early-’80s New Orleans precursor to the Subdudes by the same name) and guitarist/singer Ray Ganucheau — Louisiana émigrés getting some buddies together to write and play for fun — the residency turned into an indie- scene happening that attracted the cream of a likeminded crop. The weekly roots-rock hootenanny eventually solidified into an absurdly talented family containing multi-instrumentalist/singer Peter Holsapple (ex-dB’s), bassist Mark Walton (ex-Dream Syndicate) and singer/guitarists Vicki Peterson (ex-Bangles) and Susan Cowsill (ex-Cowsills).
By the time of the release of the group’s debut album (not actually the first it recorded; that would be the belatedly issued Nineteen Ninety-Three), Ganucheau was gone and the lineup had settled down to a six-piece containing five gifted songwriters and four lead singers. A powerful, superbly played record of indescribable diversity — put pins in the Band, the Bangles and the soulful side of John Hiatt and connect the dots, that at least describes the perimeter — Continental Drifters is a passionate, populist winner in which everyone has a say worth hearing. If the singing lacks precision, the depth of emotions put into — and drawn from — the songs more than makes up for it.
Cowsill sings Walton’s angry “Get Over It” with the surety of a woman who’s been through it all and renders Goffin/King’s “I Can’t Make It Alone” with aching sadness and love; the rough edges of her own “Desperate Love” can’t obscure its fiery core. Peterson’s frustration at the “Mixed Messages” she’s getting is palpable, as is her determination in Mike Nesmith’s “Some of Shelly’s Blues.” Holsapple gives a handsome burnish to “Soul Deep” (a Wayne Thompson song done by the Box Tops) and tells an enigmatic romantic tale in the swaying “Invisible Boyfriend.” Nuccio bounces through life’s ups and downs in “New York” and “Mezzanine.” Rather than a sampler of co-dependent solo artists, Continental Drifters is a sympathetic collective of individual hearts, minds and voices strengthening each other.
Nuccio’s departure (replaced by zydeco drummer Russ Broussard) concentrates the songwriting and singing of Vermilion on Peterson, Holsapple and Cowsill, but they are more than equal to the challenge. If anything, the Drifters’ second album is stronger than the first. Cowsill sings two terrific songs, “The Rain Song” (which could have been a Bangles hit) and “Spring Day in Ohio,” with stirring determination; Peterson’s “Heart, Home” is gentle and tender; Holsapple’s rueful “Don’t Do What I Did” only hints at the band’s romantic relationship miseries, while the eight-minute “Daddy Just Wants It to Rain” is a monumental and powerful piece of family autobiography. The album ends with “Anything,” a Peterson/Holsapple love song that balances light humor with strong conviction. Vermilion is mature, artistic and affecting.
The aftermath of a 1998 concert for the late Sandy Denny in which the Drifters took part, Listen, Listen is a Fairport Convention tribute: covers of seven songs by Denny and Richard Thompson.