A few days after George Harrison’s funeral I saw the Starlight Drifters at the Tap Room in Ypsilanti, and it was, believe me, very easy to imagine a world in which the Beatles had never existed, despite being told otherwise every five minutes by someone on CNN.
Guitar player Chris Casello and singer Bill Alton are the heart of this four-piece 1950s-sounding rock ‘n’ roll band. The songs are often their own — usually Casello’s, but sometimes Alton’s, or Casello and Alton’s jointly. It doesn’t seem quite enough of a compliment to call their songs period-piece knockoffs, and their act is not self-consciously or smugly retro. But plainly their popularity is based on their prodigious talent for conjuring time-warped instant classics that you’ll swear you’ve heard Elvis do.
Casello and Alton are living in a small but real slice of a musical tradition that never quite died, where men exude a kind of strutting, flashy, yet tender and sentimental masculinity. Alton’s voice has that swooping catch and a lot of other tricks that began to drop out of sight when the Beatles came on the scene. Casello’s lead guitar is like a shower of sparks — colorful, full of energy, and seemingly spontaneous. His tour de force is “Johnny Dynamite,” a song that amalgamates all the famous lead guitar riffs from the 1950s and 1960s, but he has plenty of fun creations of his own too, including my favorite, a sound like a cat being stepped on. He sometimes switches between several guitars, including a standing steel guitar, during the same song. It’s amazing to see an act this good in a bar with a $3 cover charge and $2 beers.
To be able to have so much fun for so little money and effort is a treat. The Drifters do several gigs a year in Vegas and Nashville, and their new CD, produced in Vegas by Rollin’ Rock Records, is their strongest yet. A herd of good dancers follow this band, so be prepared to share the dance floor with accomplished jitterbuggers in period costume.
The Starlight Drifters are at the Cavern Club on January 4 and at the Tap Room on January 25 and 26.