Early-‘90s L.A. club scene veterans the Continental Drifters reunite for autism benefit

By Bliss Bowen

Drifters for Life: Ray Ganucheau, Gary Eaton, Peter Holsapple, Carlo Nuccio and Mark Walton Photo by Greg Allen

Drifters for Life: Ray Ganucheau, Gary Eaton, Peter Holsapple, Carlo Nuccio and Mark Walton
Photo by Greg Allen

Raji’s: The name is often invoked as some kind of long-lost punk mecca. The dim, sticky-floored Hollywood Boulevard dive that hosted the likes of X, the Muffs and Redd Kross was an unlikely cradle for one of the more respected bands to emerge from L.A.’s early-’90s club scene: the Continental Drifters.

The Continental Drifters evolved out of freewheeling Tuesday night sessions at Raji’s in 1991, with musicians who’d made their bones playing with the Bangles, the Cowsills, the dB’s, the Dream Syndicate and Giant Sand, and who derived unabashed joy from jamming on vintage soul and country covers as well as their own tuneful material. Bassist Mark Walton, New Orleans drummer Carlo Nuccio, guitarists Gary Eaton and Ray Ganucheau, and keyboardist Danny McGough soon invited ex-dB’s multi-instrumentalist Peter Holsapple to join them, shortly after he finished touring with R.E.M. Before long the Drifters’ ranks swelled with the harmonies of Susan Cowsill and Vicki Peterson.

“Lots and lots of drunken nights there,” McGough recalls with a chuckle. “Of course, it was Raji’s. You’d have whatshisname, the Mentors guy, El Duce, wandering around the club all the time, and people from ‘Beverly Hills 90210,’ which was a fairly eclectic bunch. It was like, ‘Where’d these Westsiders come from?’”

“Raji’s was a stinky little club and it was fun, and I really liked the band and what they were doing,” Holsapple says. “Some nights we played in drag. It was really just Dada, in a way. I don’t think we were thinking of it as Dada, but it came off undoubtedly like, ‘What exactly the f— are they doing?’ Many asked. It was a great deal of fun during a time when I wasn’t having such fun. I’m grateful for that forever.”

The combination of steep musicianship, multiple on-their-game songwriters and rich harmonies was potent. Add to that the starry luster of players’ resumes, plus the only-in-L.A. intraband soap operas that spurred various lineup changes and the eventual relocation of most Drifters to New Orleans (a full chronicle of which could fill a book), and you have an ensemble with a fertile creative dynamic and cult status that’s lingered since their 2002 breakup.

“This was a soulful batch of musicians and songs,” Holsapple says. “I suppose it is a family thing in some ways, but dysfunctional family, of course. Would you expect anything less?”

Omnivore recently released a two-disc compilation, “Drifted: In the Beginning & Beyond,” which collects early demos, live tracks, covers, the Drifters’ rarely heard 1993 debut album and 2001 EP “Listen Listen.” Taken together with enlightening liner notes that include a mini oral history, they represent an ear-pleasing artistic statement by a band tilling hopeful musical ground, blending Beach Boys, William Bell and Richard Thompson covers with originals spun with strands of Bakersfield country, Southern soul and sunny L.A. pop.

This weekend, players from all configurations of the Drifters will sprawl across the stage of Santa Monica’s Morgan-Wixson Theatre for two Wild Honey concerts benefiting the Autism Think Tank. Sets will draw heavily from “Drifted.”

“We’re excited with the attention the record has gotten,” Holsapple says. “It’s a really great record and it’s reminded everybody what a really great band this was. Mark Walton, our bassist and founder, and Omnivore Records put it together and made it a beautiful-sounding thing. So we thought we’d celebrate. We’ve never done it before with everybody that was in the band.”

Whenever the dry-humored Holsapple refers to Walton, he says, “Mark Walton-our-founder-and-bassist” all in one connected, quirky phrase, as if Walton’s band status was a hyphenated part of his name. Walton’s been the one human constant, the rhythm-directing anchor, in the Drifters’ ever-shifting history. Onstage he’ll be surrounded by Holsapple, McGough, Cowsill, Eaton, Ganucheau, Nuccio, Peterson, Russ Broussard and Robert Maché.

For longtime followers of the band’s myriad permutations and convolutions, hearing them in a proper concert setting is a don’t-miss date; for those only aware of the Continental Drifters as some under-the-radar L.A. precursor to what’s now called Americana, it’s an opportunity to experience the melodic, genre-bridging music and songwriting craft that inspired admiration from critics and fans.

Last week the Drifters — who are scattered across Memphis, North Carolina, Southern California and Vegas — all descended on New Orleans, where Cowsill, Broussard, Ganucheau and Nuccio still reside. After a couple of days of rehearsal, they mounted the stage at uptown nightclub Tipitina’s. According to L.A.-based McGough, who hadn’t performed with the band since 2002, “muscle memory” made it an easy show to do.

“We were like, ‘OK, it’s gonna sound like Mad Dogs & Englishmen, with such a big troupe of singers and musicians,’ and we got fairly close at times to that,” he says. “It was pretty good. It was long, but for me it didn’t seem like it even though it was upward of four hours.

“Everything just kind of fell into place. When you’ve done something so many times it’s like riding a bike. Or swimming, and hopefully not drowning.”

“We played those songs for so many years that if you woke me up in the middle of the night out of a dead sleep and asked me to play ‘Here I Am,’ I would be able to do it,” Holsapple says. “The quality of the songs is so high, all the way through every incarnation of the band. Carlo, Gary and Ray were a formidable trifecta of songwriting — so different but so soulful and so similar. …

“I’m really grateful. The Drifters are a remarkable entourage. I hope we make it through to see the other side intact. And I bet we will.”

Wild Honey Foundation presents the Continental Drifters at 8 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 20, at Morgan-Wixson Theatre, 2627 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica; $30, $60 and $75. Saturday show sold out. Call (310) 828-7519 or visit continentaldrifters.com or morgan-wixson.org.