Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Relix Revisited:The Radiators: On the Road from New Orleans

The Radiators have maintained the same line-up ever since the group was founded in 1977. Last week, however, the band announced that keyboard player and principal songwriter Ed Volcker will be leaving the band in 2011. With this in mind, we look back to this account of the Rads, which ran in the December 1986 issue of Relix.

On East Thirteenth Street, just before 9 p.m., a well dressed couple approaches the t-shirt crowd waiting to get into the Lone Star CafĂ© and asks no one in particular the inevitable question: “Who’s playing tonight?” “The Radiators,” someone answers. “Who are they?” “They’re good.” “Where do they come from?”

That seems like a good question to put to Radiator Ed Volcker a few minutes later in the Radiators’ dressing room. “Love,” says Volcker, “pain, the wilderness, horses, birds, fish, barbeque, water, tequila, closing down the paraphernalia establishments…”—wait a minute. An easier, if somewhat less thorough answer might be New Orleans. That’s where the Radiators came together in 1977, after years playing in other local bands and backing up the likes of Jimmy McCracklin, Charles Brown, David Bromberg, Catfish Hodge, Dr. John, Allen Toussaint, Earl King, Ernie K-Doe, and Professor Longhair. Originally, there was a group called the Dogs, which gradually metamorphosed into the then five-member Radiators, with Volcker as he described it, starting as janitor and working his way down to keyboards (and vocals), Dave Malone on guitar and vocals, Camile Baudoin, also on guitar and vocals, Reggie Scanlan on bass, and Franklin Bua on drums. Percussionist Glenn Sears was formally added to the band in 1983, after endless sit-ins.

“It’s just a lot of old friendships,” says Volcker. “We have fun, we’re starting to make a little money, we’re starting to change clothes every day, it’s great.” To elaborate a little on that, the Radiators spent years playing in the New Orleans area, becoming a favorite at Tulane University as well as at club like Tipitina’s, but not attracting much attention from the world at large or the record companies in particular. Three years on, they formed their own record label, Croacker Records, and issued the single that started “fish head music,” a crawfish tribute called, “Such the Head, Squeeze the Tip.” They also released a double live album recorded at Tipitina’s Work Done On Premises.

The album revealed a tight band that had taken its New Orleans influences and infiltrated them through a rock ‘n’ roll sensibility formed by listening to bands like the Grateful Dead, the Band, the Allman Brothers, and Little Feat. Volcker and Malone traded lead vocals, Malone and Baudoin played twin and alternating leads, and with titles like “Cannibal Girls,” “Lord You Light Up My Pipe,” “Bad Taste Of Your Stuff,” and “Low Life,” songwriter Volcker defined the lives and times of the common man. Or, as he succinctly put it, “There’s no life/ Like that low life/ And that low life/ It’s a wild life.” In 1981, they followed with another single, “My Whole World Flies Apart,” and another album, Heat Generation. (All this vinyl is available from Croaker Records, New Orleans, LA.)

By 1982, the Radiators had started to spread fish head music beyond the borders of New Orleans. “Starting about three years ago,” says Volcker, “we spend about three months out of the year on the road, and usually in two-week increments. Increments—sounds like something dirty, but it’s not.” By now, those increments have taken the band throughout the South and Midwest, and on the present tour, they’d taken in Eastern seaboard dates starting in Washington, D.C., and soon to head up to Boston. “Marco Polo is our hero,” explains Volcker, “and the Earl of Sandwich is our guiding spirit.”

One place they can be heard is on Epic Records’ 1985 sampler, Epic Presents The Unsigned, where they have a track called, “This Wagon’s Gonna Roll.” But probably the best place to see them is in a packed bar like the Lone Star. Volcker, while dispensing information, is also writing out three set lists for the band, lists that make it look like this’ll be a long night.

Downstairs, the obvious comparisons, to the Allmans and Little Feat, only work because the Radiators suggest the quality of those bands. If Baudoin is capable of mixing parts of Duane Allman with Robbie Robertson and much of his own style, it’s only because of years of playing that give him an encyclopedic style. Volcker’s swampy vocals recall Lowell George, but they reach back to George’s own influences in New Orleans music. This is a hybrid band, steeped in much of the best music in America has made in the last forty years. In other words, they do sound like a lot like the Radiators.

They start with the “Boomerang,” a highly danceable song whose inventive slide work recalls the best of the Allmans, while the melody and rhythm pure Radiators. “Like Dreams Do” follows with a lovely riff carried by synthesizers and percussion, and proves just as moving to the capacity crowd. Then it’s on to an oldie, “One-Eyed Jack,” from the first album, a tale of gambling set to a reggaeish beat mixed with second line rhythms and infused with the spirit of Pigpen McKernan circa “Operator.” “Low Life” is introduced as “the Louisiana state song.” The lyrics appear in their entirety above, but it’s the music that counts, as the song is turned into an extended, steamy showcase for the guitar work of Malone and Baudoin.

Here is a bar band that has convinced its audience completely playing all original material. Now they turn to covers, starting with the Beatles “I’ve Got a Feeling,” which turns out to be a perfect vehicle for a two-guitar band, and leads into a medley with “Slow Down,” Perkins by way of Beatles by way of Radiators. Having established their pop credentials, they turn to R&B and soul, combining Bobby Blue Bland’s “Ain’t Nothing You Can Do” with the Staple Singers’ “I’ll Take You There,” before closing with Johnny Cash’s “Cocaine Blues.” Did you ever go to see a band and figure they had the same record collection that you do?

It’s hard to imagine, given the cheering in the bar, that the Radiators will be able to avoid wider exposure, but they’ve been around enough to be skeptical. “There’s a big old world out there,” Volcker had said just before they went on, “and hopefully we can keep away from it as much as possible.”

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