These days in Detroit, you go to a bar to get drunk, with a sneer on your face and a chip on your shoulder. You go to a show to hear thundering, howling chords that punch you in the face and knock you over. You pick up the latest issue of Rolling Stone and read about your band and all of your friends’ bands, and laugh.
These days in Detroit, it’s hard to make it if you’re not a hardass.
Just ask the Starlight Drifters.
Embracing the sounds of yesteryear — with a dash of twang and a wink of charm — the Starlight Drifters are dedicated to rekindling the romance of music. A catchy blend of rockabilly, country, honky-tonk and Western swing, this quartet doesn’t quite fit within the current aggressive, garage-driven soundscape of the Motor City.
But that hasn’t stopped them from being one of the hardest-working bands in Detroit; they’ve gigged nearly every single week for the past six years. Yep, most every week, six years.
The founders and the two constant figures of the group are Bill Alton, vocals, and Chris Casello, guitar and triple-neck steel guitar; Mike King on upright bass and Mike Kissick on drums round out the current lineup.
The Drifters aren’t a hobby band. They are committed, full-time musicians. The members have day jobs that are flexible enough to accommodate a rigorous touring and performing schedule.
Because of the considerable time demands, the band has experienced a substantial turnover rate. Alton estimates a dozen musicians have passed through the Drifters over the years.
“Guys get older,” says Alton. “You meet someone, you fall in love, you get married and have a baby … other things take precedence. And that’s OK. That’s life. Some people aren’t meant to be a musician for life.”
The group was born of a mutual longing for the way it used to be, musically speaking.
“Chris and I grew up loving music from the mid-20th century,” says Alton. “Rockabilly, blues, swing, jazz, jump blues … we try to incorporate it all into our music. It’s Americana.”
A student of Frankie and Dino, Alton’s voice is as smooth and sweet as warm honey; pour those pipes over Casello’s masterful concoction of steel twang, and you’ve got yourself one succulent slice of Americana apple pie.
The fan base of the Drifters is as varied as their gigs. They spark a warm nostalgic smile with the seniors at the Motor City Casino, and they charm the bobby socks off the rockabilly babes at a grimy dive.
The Drifters have class. Their melodies of love and heartbreak hark back to an era when men held open doors, when women weren’t called bitches, hos and tricks.
At a Drifters gig, modern-day dames who emulate Bettie Page grin coquettishly beneath their cropped bangs as they spin their crinolines across the dance floor. Guys who want to be James Dean chomp on Lucky Strikes and knock back beer, as they frequently check their well-greased pomp in the reflection of the windows. He bows and politely asks for a dance. She giggles and blissfully obliges.
“Every song I’ve ever written is because I messed something up, or I hurt someone and they left me,” says Alton.
“There was a time when talent exceeded shock value,” adds Casello. “We apply the old-school attitude, and having respect for your audience is where it starts. That means you always look good, you always act professionally, and you always have your hair up as high as possible.”
Just like it used to be.
The Starlight Drifters will perform Friday, Dec. 27 and Saturday, Dec. 28 at the Tap Room, 201 W. Michigan Ave., Ypsilanti. Call 734-482-5320 for more information.Sarah Klein is a Metro Times staff writer. E-mail her at [email protected]
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