Tipitina’s bills Saturday night’s Continental Drifters reunion show as featuring the “beloved benchmark Americana supergroup.”
In truth, the band that played in one form or another from 1991 to 2001 loomed larger in minds of its members and fans than it did in the larger public consciousness.
Seeing the band and being a part of it left a mark, but despite — or because of — its lineup that featured musicians who had played in The Bangles, The Cowsills, The dB’s, The Dream Syndicate and countless other bands, The Continental Drifters could be a hard band to bring into focus for those who hadn’t seen them.
The line between offstage and on was dotted for The Continental Drifters, so almost everything about the band was informal and ad hoc except the performances, when their multipart harmonies and tasteful musicianship regularly gave songs genuine life. They weren’t simply musical ideas; they were places where people came together.
It helped that everybody who passed through the band had a solid musical pedigree, but one of its strengths and weaknesses was that no one ever treated it like a job.
“We’re not The Eagles,” guitarist Robert Mache said.
“This is a group of people who live for the moment,” Mache said, and the spontaneity that came because of that made the shows as much fun for the performers as they were for the audience. “There’s a sense of adventure.”
According to founding member Gary Eaton, The Continental Drifters were united from the start by similar record collections, which translated to similar aesthetics and a shared musical vocabulary.
“That’s pretty unusual,” Carlo Nuccio, another founding member, said. They met in Los Angeles, where Eaton, Nuccio, Mark Walton and Ray Ganucheau were all in bands trying to get their own things going. Ganucheau and Nuccio knew each other from playing in bands together in New Orleans.
From the start, the band was unusual in that they were all songwriters in bands that focused on someone else’s songs. “I wanted to put my fate somewhat in my own hands,” Nuccio said, but he wanted a band where everybody else contributed songs and lead vocals, too. At the time when bands typically conspire to take over the world, the Drifters were “just trying to make good sounds, write some decent songs, play some gigs,” Ganucheau said. “There weren’t a lot of lofty goals.”
The Continental Drifters’ home bar was Raji’s, a club in Hollywood where Nuccio worked sound. They played there weekly, and when the band’s first keyboard player, Danny McGeough, left, Peter Holsapple joined fresh off his gig as utility side man for R.E.M. Susan Cowsill and The Bangles’ Vicki Peterson hung out regularly at Raji’s, often ending up onstage singing as well, so at some point Nuccio asked them to join the band. He did so reluctantly at first, uneasy about how they’d affect the group dynamic, but “Vicki and Susan are badass musicians,” he said.
Everybody in the band has Raji’s stories. Mark Walton remembers how they used to have an open door policy onstage, so anyone who had something to offer could do so. Since Raji’s only sold wine and beer from a tub of ice, they had to dash across Hollywood Boulevard to a bar called The Frolic Room for shots between sets.
“It was a party for us,” Walton said.
That period of the band’s career is heavily represented on “Drifted: In the Beginning and Beyond,” the recently released two-disc retrospective that provided an occasion for the reunion that will take place Saturday, then again next weekend in Los Angeles. Walton had been the band’s archivist, but he only had the tracks for the album through the stubbornness of others.
Post-Katrina floodwaters poured into Walton’s house, soaking his tapes along with everything else. He assumed they had been damaged beyond recovery and put them in the trash, but the band’s soundman salvaged them.
“He thought I was being irrational,” Walton said. When talk of the retrospective started, Walton discovered that the band’s other hoarder, Holsapple, lost his tapes, too, when his house in Arabi flooded. Since few other members and fans had few usable recordings, he revisited his tapes and discovered them to be in better condition than he’d assumed.
During the band’s decade together, its members went through complicated relationships, health issues and lineup changes, plus a move from Los Angeles to New Orleans, but it remains a special time for all of them as, for a brief time, they were in a band that really was first and foremost about music. For Mache, the Drifters were a band in which almost all of his musical interests came together.
“I’m damn proud of them, and I’m happy to identify with that,” he said. “That’s my forever band.”
Nuccio agrees. “It was as much a songwriter’s workshop as it was a band,” he said. “When you have Vicki and Peter and Susan and Ray and Gary and all, I was getting better exponentially. All of the stuff I’d written my whole life didn’t equate to some of the stuff I started writing in the beginning. It was my mark.”
Walton now does website design in Las Vegas, only playing occasionally. He hoped that “Drifted” might lead to a few shows, but before he could put that thought on the table, “Peter said, ‘Let’s play some shows,’” Walton remembered.
“I didn’t think anybody would go for it, and as you can see, everybody did,” Walton said. “I’m grateful because I’ve missed all my friends. I’m on a desert island out here in Vegas. My whole motivation was to hang out with my friends.”
“We’re going to rehearse for a couple of days and it probably won’t have any bearing on the show,” Mache said, laughing.
When they get together, drummer Russ Broussard will be the only member who doesn’t date back to the years in L.A. before they moved to New Orleans in 1993. He stepped in when Nuccio left in 1995. Mache officially joined when they moved to New Orleans, but he subbed for Ganucheau on a regular basis at Raji’s.
“They were my family,” Mache said. “Sometimes you can pick your family.”