The Radiators, The Birchmere, Alexandria, VA- 2/11
Celebrating 26 years as a rock and roll band, the Radiators continue showcasing their unique New Orleans' infused "Fish Head" funk by serving up a gumbo of standards combined with masterful deconstructions of other artist's material.
"To me a cover song is just another song written by someone else," guitarist and co-lead singer Dave Malone said in a telephone interview from his home in New Orleans. "Whatever we do ends up sounding like the Rads anyway — that's undeniable."
Underscoring the band's interpretive powers, the Radiators opened a two and half hour set at The Birchmere in Alexandria, Virginia, with John Lee Hooker's, "I'm In the Mood." Rendering the Hooker classic unrecognizable from its original form, the Rads (as they are affectionately referred to by their cult following of "Fish Heads") ignited the bandstand with a rollicking, head bopping boogie, highlighted by keyboardist Ed Volker's greasy vocal phrasing along with counterpoint provided by the dueling staccato guitar work of Malone and Camile Baudoin.
The band then proceeded to dig deep into its trick bag of old-school, original material. "Jigsaw," "Creepin' Vine," "Hold Back the Flood," and the sublime "River Run," proved timeless, and sound as compelling as they did two decades ago.
Of the band's vintage material, "Hold Back the Flood," best marked the Radiators' peculiar swagger, having not lost its gripping, if sophomoric power. During the Birchmere set, as Volker and Malone harmonized, "the wind starts howlin'/the moon is dripping blood/who's got the power to/hold back the flood," one couldn't help but smile, chuckle and become swept up in it especially since the song's catchy lyrics were delivered with such intense conviction.
On "River Run" it became clear that the Radiators were in fine fettle, performing just a notch bellow they would on their home turf in New Orleans on a steamy Saturday night in a packed house at Tipitina's. Reggie Scanlan, who once played with New Orleans piano legend Professor Longhair, held down a tight bass line, while the band invoked sweet Mississippi river breezes with rippling rhythm guitar licks by Malone and Baudoin, and once again, gritty but sweet harmony provided by Malone and Volker.
The band was playful throughout the night, all the while, exhibiting its wide-ranging influences: from the sheer array of cover material to the Robbie Robertsonesque lead guitar of Baudoin, Volker's Big Easy junker blues piano playing, to even the tuning up interludes by Malone and Baudoin in between songs. In a practice the band has engaged in for years with different songs, midway through the show while tuning up, Malone and Baudoin launched into the Beatles' "Day Tripper," only to stop 30 seconds into the number, ultimately teasing the audience.
In the hands of the Radiators, Bukka White's hard driving "Parchman Farm" became a foot-stomping medicine show, and Chuck Berry's "You Never Can Tell," the perfect bon temps twirl around the dance floor.
"Good Things," a country influenced Radiators mainstay sounded crisp and energetic and best of all, exuded a psychedelic, hillbilly cool with its groovy lyrics, "I've got stars in my eyes/and it comes as no surprise." "Good Things" melded expertly into "You Are My Sunshine," the timeless song penned by former Louisiana governor and singing cowboy Jimmy Davis.
"Go Back (The Way You Came)" marked a prime example of the Radiators patented, relentless second-line shuffle while sadly, "Salty Jane," another essential Radiators ramble morphed into a drawn-out "cry in my beer" blues delivered by an impassioned Volker. Admirable as it may be that the band would try to stretch the song's potential and render it unto another form, it was the only tune of the night that lacked punch, and didn't quite achieve whatever it seemingly set out to accomplish.
During the three-song encore the Rads highlighted the Mardi Gras spirit with Al "Carnival Time" Johnson's Crescent City classic, "Carnival Time," ripped through a concise "Suck The Head," and burned through, an anthem-like version of the Rolling Stones' "Time Is On My Side." For other bands, covering Stones tunes often sounds trite, but in the Radiators' case, "Time Is On My Side" proved fresh, innovative and reinvented the song's structure beyond its original scope.
"Some people say we do Stones' tunes better than they do at this point," Malone said by telephone the night before the Birchmere show in talking about the Radiators' influences. "I don't think that's true at all. But like the Stones, we're a band that doesn't give a crap what other people say or think."
The Radiators will be playing more than 150 gigs across America in the next year. If their show at The Birchmere offers any indication of what to expect, the band's performance night in and night out will sound as urgent as it did over a quarter century ago.