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Published: 2006/10/23
by Rob Johnson

The Radiators: A Faith-Based New Orleans Pagan Rock Band

The New Orleans Radiators. That was how I first saw them advertised when I was at Tulane in the 1980s. Their swampy musical gumbo was a unique by-product of the richest musical scene known to man, which is probably why they felt it necessary to proclaim their allegiance to the city in the very name of the band.

Over the years they came to be known as simply the Radiators, and they made new converts all over the country with relentless touring. They have racked up 4,000 shows with the same lineup and played well over 1,000 different songs live, something not even the Grateful Dead can say. Their powerful live shows have earned them one of the most devoted fanbases in the world, and in a variety of ways, they are one of the indispensable elders of the jam scene. After a tough year following Hurrican Katrina, their new studio album Dreaming Out Loud could be the one that finally vaults them into their deserved place in the jamband pantheon.

LEAVING NEW ORLEANS

Radiators guitarist Dave Malone is New Orleans down to his DNA. The affable, friendly singer/songwriter and his brother Tommy Malone of the Subdudes constitute one of the Crescent City’s many noteworthy musical families, and for years he lived in a modest house on Jeanette Street in Uptown New Orleans. He was a local institution and one of the unique characters that make New Orleans such an interesting place. Then came August 29th, 2005the worst birthday Dave Malone ever had, and the day Katrina made landfall.

“People remember my birthday now,” says Malone with bittersweet humor. “I said I never would (leave New Orleans), but we had about three feet of water, which turned into this mire and muck, green and brown and black fuzzy shit. When the 17th Street Canal levee came down, the lake basically dumped into the city, and the waters rushed south. Jeanette Street was one of the last streets to have three feet of water, two blocks over it was okay.”

Malone and his wife tried to renovate the house for a while, but insurance problems and other frustrations eventually got the better of them and they moved to the country. They live in Prairieville, Louisiana now and Dave stays with his brother Tommy when he is in New Orleans.

“A New Orleans gig is a road gig for me now,” says Malone, and his gravelly voice is rich with emotion over the ramifications of that statement.

Ed Volker is the Rads other main songwriter and singer, and plays a percussive honky-tonk piano that could only come from New Orleans. Known in the Radiators community as “Zeke Fish Head,” he is also the High Priest of the strange rock and roll religion they Rads have built for themselves. He was luckier than Malone and fared better during Katrina, although it’s clear it still hit him hard.

“My neighborhood is this island right around the Fairgrounds, and it came through quite beautifully, although not unscathed,” Volker says with an air of surprise, as if he still can’t believe his good fortune. “I’ve been living there nine years, and I’ve learned that it’s where the earliest settlers, the Spanish fishermen, settled. They could see the land, they could see where the high ground was, and it’s called Esplanade Ridge. I didn’t know any of this when I moved there, I just thought it was one of the most beautiful sections of the city.”

It is clear that both men have a deep fondness for the city, and the trauma and tragedy of the past year has left a mark on them. It’s not hard to get them to rhapsodize about what exactly makes the Big Easy so special to them.

“New Orleans is kind of like an island in the US. It’s not your regular Southern town, it’s more likeI don’t know, Caribbean,” says Malone about his hometown. “Every two blocks in whatever direction is a whole different world. You can have one block with stately homes worth millions of dollars, and two blocks away, there are these funky little shotgun houses.”

“My favorite night usually in New Orleans is Sunday night, it just feels like the spiritual element is quite palpable,” Volker says with affection. “That’s the thing about New Orleans: it’s one of the most spiritual of places, and one of the most carnal of places. You really have the spirit and the flesh in full array and dynamics there.”

IN THE BEGINNING

Given the band’s strong connection to New Orleans, there is no way to really understand them unless you understand the incredibly music scene that spawned them back in 1978.

“Those were wonderful, heady days, right when the Jazz Fest started, and Tipitina’s had the 501 Club, and we played at Luigi’s, and the Dream Palace was happenin’ and the Maple Leaf was starting upso many places,” says Volker, and you can feel him drifting on a raft of warm memories. “And you could hear James Booker and Professor Longhair, Toots Washington, Roosevelt Sykes, playing all the time. To me, it was something that was in the air.”

Besides Malone and Volker, the rock-steady rhythm section of Reggie Scanlon and Frank Bua and the razor-sharp guitar lines of Camile Baudoin have been part of the recipe since the very beginning. All were seasoned veterans with experience backing up the royalty of New Orleans R&B, but that first meeting sparked something so magical that they felt compelled to drop their other gigs and focus on the Radiators full-time. They were soon a vital part of the rich musical tapestry of the Crescent City, along with other classic artists like The Meters. Having caught the tail end of it myself, I can testify that New Orleans in the 80s was an incredible time and place to see and hear live music.

“You know what, I don’t even listen to the records, because it’s just not the same. Of course, they say that about us, that we don’t sell many records because it’s about the live thing,” says Volker with disarming honesty, and you wonder if he’s forgotten he’s supposed to be plugging his new studio CD. “I don’t know, that’s just what people tell me, but I can say that about all those old New Orleans cats, because it was all about being there.”

That reverence for musical tradition has always been part of the backbone of the band, and Dave Malone in particular insists that the classic music of the past is just better than what he hears in contemporary music.

“You know what, my kids try to turn me on to newer stuff, and I’m always just kind of disappointed. I’m stuck in the 60’s, I guess,” Malone says with a laugh. “I wonder about that, I wonder if that music is really better music, or if it’s just because that’s the stuff I listened to during my so-called formative years. We were very fortunate to grow up in a time when radio didn’t have playlists. DJs would play whatever they wanted. So for me, people like George Jones and Ray Charles were equally soulful.”

By the late 80s, some of the old guard like Professor Longhair and Roosevelt Sykes had passed away. Although the city still had a tremendous scene, it felt like something had peaked and faded, but not before it made an impression on people like the Radiators and the future members of Galactic.

“It shone brightly before it left, it went out in a blaze of glory,” Ed says about the salad days of the New Orleans scene.

FISH HEAD MUSIC

In 1987, the band’s album Law of the Fish became a minor hit, thanks to classic tracks like “Holiday” and “Love Is A Tangle” that remain in the band’s playlist to this day. The Radiators became more than just another band from New Orleansto a lot of people, they became THE band from New Orleans.

By this time Radiators fans were trading tapes of particularly hot live shows, at a time when the Grateful Dead was the only other band capable of generating such single-minded devotion. Much like the Dead, the Rads earned their fanbase by delivering revelatory, soul-saving live shows and touring relentlessly. Their fans even took to calling themselves Fish Heads, after the band’s so-called “Fish Head Music.”

“The band is on the road so much, and we work so much, we are a very hand-to-mouth band,” Malone says about the band’s hard-touring ways. “We exist on gig moneythere’s not a lot of mailbox stuff.”

As any touring band can testify, it’s a hard life. At a recent anniversary show, the Rads sold shirts with the humorous slogan “Too Stupid To Stop.” They were only half-joking, as the road has lost its charm many times over, but the music keeps them going.

Another sustaining force is the love and devotion of their fans. Over time, the band’s devoted followers set up “Krewes” in different cities to help spread the religion. Often Tulane graduates would leave New Orleans and return home with tales of this amazing band and the wicked parties they threw, and not surprisingly, and not surprisingly, they wanted to recreate that vibe in their hometown.

Volker says the band’s “Krewes” are inspired by “The Gators Ball, and the MOMS Ball (Mystics, Orphans and Magicians), and the Krewe of Cosmik Debris, and all of these different little social clubs in New Orleans. The idea sort of became a virus when people were visiting and seeing MOMS Ball and digging us, and they started a community in different regions. And that is quite a blessing, because there are a lot of bands that have a larger following than we do, but we have one of the most integrated, personal, social community-type relationships with our audience of any band.”

The band relied on that fanbase more than ever after Katrina, and the powerful bond between the Fish Heads and the band grew even stronger.

“The first couple of months of gigs, all the words had such literal resonancewhether they were my songs or other people’s songs, the emotional weight was enormous,” says Ed Volker about the days immediately after Katrina. “The first gigs that we played in Frisco, and the first gigs we played in December last year in New Orleans, a weekend at Tipitina’s, the feelings were just there were a lot of people in tears. The feeling that the music survived, and some of us survived, and was there to be together with each other, was amazing.”

DREAMING OUT LOUD

Despite the less-than-ideal conditions that persist over a year after Katrina, the band recorded their new CD in New Orleans at Piety Street Studios with veteran Producer Mark Bingham, known for his work with REM and others.

“We were determined to record this thing in New Orleans, because we wanted to work at that studio, which managed to come out of this unscathed. We did it during Mardi Gras, which is probably not the best time to record an album,” Malone says with a laugh. “The city is so crazy.”

One thing that both Malone and Volker insist on is that while they love to jam, good songs are always top priority. You get the impression that even though they are both excellent musicians, they take greater pride in their songs than they do in a particularly ripping solo.

“We were probably one of the original jambands, I would think” says Malone. “But it was always coming from the place of having a good song, it wasn’t just jamming for the hell of it, which can sound kind of like musical masturbation. You have a song at least to get back to when you’re done jamming. Nothing is more important than the song itself.”

“I’m not a technical studentI’m a song guy, you know, I always went for the songs,” agrees Volker. “It was more like osmotically, it just kind of crept in. I’ve never really sat down and tried to play something that somebody else played, I just like a song, and I bang on the piano until the song makes sense to me, which usually means that I’m changing the keys and the chords and the rhythms and everything else, because I’m trying to let the song work on me and bring it out into the world in a fresh way.”

Given that song-oriented focus, it’s only appropriate that the new album concentrates on the songs, including several older tunes that were rearranged and updated for this release. The band’s willingness to experiment, even with some of their most tried-and-true material, is one of their strong points.

“We had the idea to start off the first verse with just Ed on piano and me on acoustic guitar, and have me sing the first verse, and then come in with the guitar,” says Malone about the new arrangement of “Death of the Blues” that appears on Dreaming Out Loud. “I think it gives it a whole new vibe. I love that song.”

“On solo gigs and trio appearances, I used to do a very, very country slow version, which is how I originally wrote it,” says Volker about “Lost Radio,” one of the tunes on Dreaming Out Loud. “In revisiting some of my old favorite songs I came across that and said I wonder how that would sound as more of a shuffle beat.’ And it was miraculous, I felt that it releases something that the song was implying previously, so I brought it to the Radiators with that big shuffle beat. Everybody took to it, so I’m really glad we could get that on the record.”

Of course, especially in light of the fact that they were recording in New Orleans, thoughts of Katrina were never far from the band’s mind. Even songs that were written many years ago seemed to resonate with recent events, and some songs were reworked to address the band’s experiences.

“It’s funny how a lot of those songs, although not consciously written with tragedy and disaster in mind, seem to be relevant to that,” Malone says philosophically. “I rewrote the lyrics to Don’t Pray For Me.’ I rearranged stuff and added stuff, and some of it is relevant to Katrina, and some of it just sounds like it is.”

As usual, Volker plays yin to Malone’s yang, and strongly denies that any of his tunes on the album were inspired by actual events.

“The whole thing about the musical experience, from where I look at it, it’s all about play and imagination,” says Volker. “I sing things that I wouldn’t for a moment believe when I’m in my right mind. Emotionally, our idea of music has an unconquerable depth and height to it, but in terms of trying to cash out chips from songs into the real world, and real life, that’s a rather fragile and dangerous endeavor.”

Life itself is often fragile and dangerous, and music can be a way to heal the wounds the world leaves on our souls. Dreaming Out Loud is a record that really means something to the Radiators’ longtime fans, and that is not lost on them.

“The thing about this album is, there’s things that can be taken from the lyrics that sound bittersweet, kind of, but they also sound hopeful. We didn’t consciously try to do that, but it ended up sounding that way,” says Malone.

THE FINE ART OF NOT THINKING

If you play 4,000 shows with the same band, you achieve a kind of tightness that other bands can only hope to emulate. Longtime fans and tape traders know that like any truly great live band, the Radiators are capable of musical moments that couldn’t possibly be choreographed, they could only occur spontaneously in the heat of battle.

Particularly supernatural is the guitar teamwork between Malone and Camile Baudoin. Other than the Allman Brothers, perhaps no other guitar tandem in history has played with such telepathic harmony and shared instinct.

“Actually, we don’t really talk about it,” says Malone about his bond with Baudoin. “We’re aware of the fact that from day one, stuff we played together sounded great. We played all this complementary stuff and harmony stuff accidentally, and we looked at each other like Where the hell did that come from?’ And we never really talk about it, because we’re worried that if we try to think about it too much, it will go away. I’m not kidding! I swear to God, we have this thing that we don’t understand, and don’t want to try to figure out. Luckily, we’re gifted with the ability to not think.”

Indeed, one of the distinguishing elements of the Radiators “Fish Head Music” is that it comes from the heart and the gut, not the head. Don’t look for intellectual analysis from the Rads, or self-conscious cleverness. Instead, they have a directness and emotional power that transcends mere language.

“We adhere to a faith-based New Orleans pagan rock and roll philosophy,” says Volker, and the bacchanalian nature of their shows tends to support this view. “The words get hard, it’s a hard thing to talk about. There’s more profound kinds of communication than just words. I think the music does that for us.”

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