Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Last Watusi of The Radiators

Big ones eat the little ones;
The little ones got to be fast.
That's the law of the fish now, mother -
You got to move your ass.

-"Law of the Fish" by The Radiators

Well, I'm late to the party, as usual. Last week I finally attended a show by The Radiators, the band that has forgotten more songs than most bands ever knew - exactly two months before their final performance at Tipitina's.

I listen to jazz, blues, classical music, klezmer, African music - but not much rock. The last few years, the only rock CDs I pull off the shelves with any regularity are by The Allman Brothers, Darryl Rhoades, and especially The Radiators. I became aware of the great New Orleans rock band about 15 years ago when I bought an intriguing cassette compilation at the Louisiana Music Factory in New Orleans. The tape contained, among other great Louisiana music, a reissue of the Rad's first single, their 1978 anthem to crawfish, fellatio, or both, "Suck the Head (and Squeeze the Tip)." I loved the New Orleans groove and the sound of the band, but for some reason I didn't follow up and explore The Radiators' other recordings.

But about five years ago, I came across a cheap copy of Law of the Fish, the Rads' first major-label release. I loved about half of it right away, and the other half grew on me. I started checking out their albums, and was drawn further into the Radiators' world, until I became a full-fledged Fishhead, as Radiators fans are called.

I visit New Orleans once a year, so I assumed that I would be able to hear them at Tip's or The Maple Leaf one of these days. But it never happened, and late last year Ed Volker, aka Zeke Fishhead, announced that he would be leaving the band this summer. Volker is the main songwriter for the band, one of its two lead singers, and the group's guiding light. It's a truism among Fishheads that you have to hear the band live to really appreciate them, so I looked at their schedule and found that their closest remaining show was in Orlando. I didn't mind the 400 mile drive at all.

It was an exciting show. The Rads played for two hours and 15 minutes, performing a mixture of originals and a bewildering variety of cover tunes, including "I Walk on Gilded Splinters," "Paint It Black," "The Pusher," "St. James Infirmary," the old ballad "Little Sadie," several old blues and spirituals, and more. Their recordings feature songs by Bob Dylan, Clarence Carter, Muddy Waters, The Meters, etc. All these cover tunes support the Radiators reputation as the world's best bar band - a reputation that's kind of accurate, as far as it goes.

But their originals, particularly Volker's, are the songs that get to me. Volker's songs are pretty conventional in terms of harmony and structure - they use the same three or four chords that have been used since the beginnings of rock and roll. But Volker writes catchy melodies and interesting lyrics. The latter are sometimes predictable, but more often enigmatic, and at times probably half-baked. In any case, I love "Doctor, Doctor" (yes, I know that Volker was not the first to use that title), "Hard Time Train," "Let's Radiate," "Crazy Mona," "Hard Rock Kid," "I Want to Go Where the Green Arrow Goes," etc.

And then there's the band itself. If you imagine a triangle whose points are The Allman Brothers, The Grateful Dead, and The Meters, The Radiators are situated approximately in the middle. Most of what they play is infused with a dark, swampy flavor that sets them apart from any other rock band. They boast two virtuoso guitarists, Dave Malone and Camille Baudoin, and they can turn any song into a long, improvisatory journey. Volker's keyboard style is more restrained - he's kind of a stripped-down Professor Longhair at times - but what he plays is just perfect for every song. The rhythm section of Reggie Scanlan and Frank Bua on drums can play solid straight rock, but more often adds at least a touch of New Orleans second line rhythm to the music.

For a few years in the 80's, the Radiators were signed to Epic Records, who didn't quite know what to make of them. Their three Epic albums are pretty good, if somewhat slicker than the Rads' usual sound. Except for those few years, the band has recorded for small labels or put out their own albums, and sustained itself by constant touring. During this period the band included percussionist Glenn Sears; except for his tenure, the band's personnel has remained unchanged for its entire life. More recently, The Radiators older audience has expanded - the younger "jam band" crowd has discovered them.

A lot of people think of The Radiators strictly as a party band. I think there's more going on than that; much of their music has darker overtones. If I was going to try to sum up what The Radiators are about, it would go something like this: We're living in a dying world. The Law of the Fish applies, so you'd better keep your eyes open. But while we're here, we might as well have a good time.

If you've never heard The Radiators, where should you start? The first Epic album, Law of the Fish, is pretty good; it has some of the band's best songs, like "Doctor, Doctor" and "This Wagon's Gonna Roll." There are several good live albums; Bucket of Fish is excellent. The Rads' 25th anniversary album, Earth Vs. The Radiators, is a double CD (and DVD) recorded at Tipitina's - guests include the Bonerama trombone section. But maybe the best representation of the band is their 30th anniversary double CD, Wild and Free. As long as you don't require audiophile quality on every track, you'll find it to be an amazing collection of live and studio recordings from the very beginning in 1978 through 2008.

I love the story of the band's origin. In 1978, Volker invited the members of a couple of different bands to jam in his garage one afternoon. They ended up playing for five hours, and the next day they all quit their old bands. They've been at it for the 33 years since then, but the end of the line is near. So if you have a chance during the next two months, set 'em up for the Hard Rock Kid, let the red wine flow, and catch The Radiators.


Blue said...

Thank You,
A Rads fan since day one.

Kenny said...

Hey Jeff! Some time in the late '80s/early '90s I did get to see them at the Maple Leaf - may have been the first time. Mindblowing in such a small venue. Also in the years after at Tips, Jimmy's, Fairgrounds. The Jimmy's show was where I first heard the tunes from Zigzagging Through Ghostland. My then girfriend was blasted/drunk from a long, wet afternoon at the fairgrounds. Halfway through a magnificent show, she turned to be and said: "Ken Weir, what are you going to do with the rest of your life?" Ahem. We split up soon after. And I've kept on grooving.

I once joined the Rads' email list/whatever, but it was too busy so withdrew. But not before a rabid fan sent me dozen or so recent shows. I love those for the cool covers - Magnificent Seven! I agree about Wild And Free - good round-up. Too bad Ed's splitting. But you know how that goes - e.g. The Subdudes. Multiple reunion gigs anyone? First visit to your blog, mate, gonna do some reading. Alcide Nunez next!