The Continental Drifters wouldn’t mind being known as the world’s greatest support band. Thanks to group members’ individual resumes, a number of artists have jammed with the sextet, including, most recently, Jackson Browne and Fairport Convention vocalist Iain Matthews.
“Sometimes we invite people,” said bassist Mark Walton, a founding Drifter, “but we usually just leave an open door.”
In a more formalized setting the band will play behind 20 or so singers during a tribute concert Saturday night to the late Sandy Denny at St. Ann Church in Brooklyn. The soloists include Mike Mills of R.E.M., Don Dixon and Marti Jones.
“We know a lot of Sandy Denny songs to begin with, so we’re a good choice,” Walton said. “We’ve been doing “End of the Day” for several years.”
Not that the Drifters deliberately duck the spotlight. Singers Susan Cowsill and Vicki Peterson will take their own turns during the tribute.
The continental Drifters began in Los Angeles in late 1991, when Walton, formerly of Dream Syndicate, hooked up with a pair of former New Orleans-based musicians.
“We didn’t have anything in mind,” Walton said. “It was more like a songwriters’ workshop.”
Soon, the Continental Drifters began attracting auxiliary players who filled in while others were performing elsewhere. These included Cowsill (of the Sixties band of the same name), Peterson (an ex-Bangle), and Peter Holsapple, the former dB co-leader and onetime R.E.M. sideman.
It didn’t take long for the additional members to become permanent, or for the band to relocate.
Within a year, Holsapple and Cowsill were married. They moved to New Orleans, as did Walton and, later, Peterson. Soon, all the Drifters were living in the Big Easy.
Impatient over the lack of record company interest, the band last year launched a U.S. tour of its own. Opening for Hootie and the Blowfish also helped expand the fan base.
Then in March, the Drifters headed into a recording studio on an old Louisiana plantation. They emerged 17 days later with their second album, “Vermillion,” named after a river that runs through the eight-acre spread.
Entirely mixed and produced by the band, “Vermillion” features melodic American story songs, such as “Where We Live, Who We Are,” a haunting track about withstanding life’s unexpected setbacks. The album’s best quality, however, is its rich variety of pop, rock and folk.
“This is the closest we’ve come to making the album we want to,” Walton said. “It’s very democratic. Everyone in the band had a say in it. No one got cheated.”
“Vermillion” recently reached No. 5 on the readers’ chart of the German Rolling Stone. It’s also doing well in Austria and Switzerland.
The Drifters are still shopping for an American label, however.
“We get frustrated sometimes that record companies don’t know how to sell us,” Walton said. “I would sell us as an honest bunch of people trying to make music that is heartfelt.”