After almost a quarter-century of regaling fans across the country and in Europe, the Radiators have grown older, stouter and more sensitive about where they spend their holidays.
"I remember Thanksgivings away on the road," admits the group's keyboardist and chief songwriter Ed Volker. "But we don't do that anymore -- we're always home for Thanksgiving, and Christmas, too."
That makes sense when you realize that four of the five Radiators have families. Volker is "the only one who's singular." The Radiators are from New Orleans, one of the most musical cities on Earth and home to Tipitina's, the legendary club where the group gigged this Thanksgiving weekend, and where they'll return four days before their 25th anniversary Jan. 28.
The Crescent City bakes up happy traditions like beignets. And the tradition of what Radiators fans call Fishhead Music has been gleefully guarded by Mardi Gras-inspired clubs called krewes, not only in the band's hometown but as far away as Minneapolis and San Francisco. Devoted fans jam venues all over the country, many taping the Radiators experience. They're always happy to share the results -- along with set lists and other insider info -- over the Internet (www.radiators.org).
"The band hasn't quite gotten to the point of having a krewe up in Atlanta," says Volker. "But that would be great." Particularly since the band's label, Rattlesby Records, is based in Marietta and headed by local impresario Barney Kilpatrick.
The Radiators first came together Jan. 28, 1978, to jam at a strip club in the French Quarter. Volker had summoned guitarist Camile Baudoin and drummer Frank Bua, the three seeking rescue from a floundering pizza parlor ensemble called the Rhapsodizers. Joining them were bassist Reg Scanlan and guitarist Dave Malone. "We were all looking for a more stable situation," Volker recalls. "But it wasn't until we jammed that we felt the potential of it."
The five new Radiators served up an addictive bouillabaisse redolent of rhythm and blues, old-style rock, Mardi Gras voodoo vibes and even reggae. Their first fans were college kids like themselves from the University of New Orleans and Tulane, and party-hearty Mardi Gras krewes such as the M.O.M.S. (Mystics, Orphans and Misfits), who are pictured in scant, fanciful costumes in the liner notes for the band's latest album, The Radiators.
From the beginning, the Radiators lineup hasn't changed a bit. And as their fans graduated and dispersed across the country, they took their Radiators tapes and the early albums with them, expanding the band's reputation through the '80s and '90s. The group began touring nationally, taking on the cult status of a minor-league Grateful Dead. In 1987, they were signed by major label Epic, but the ensuing studio albums began to sound "a little too plastic," and the band found its bourgeoning fan base waxing nostalgic for the more audience-friendly jam-all-night feel of the early years.
Released in 2001 at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, The Radiators "has a little more of the brightness without being plastic," says Volker. "And it still has an organic feeling." The songs' chronological origins are all over the map. Volker penned the bubbly "Bom-Bom Du-Dao" in 1971, when he was just 23, while the slinky, spooky "Crazy Mona" was written just a few months before it was recorded. The breadth of the group's repertoire is handsomely showcased with sly country poetry, funky arrangements and sizzling rock soloing. Volker says the Radiators tried to "keep the music more vital and user-friendly for an audience, and more accessible than a group like the Stones."
That vitality continues to be more palpable in the flesh -- and middle age hasn't cooled the Radiators' musical gumbo one bit.
"God only knows when the shrimp boat will finally dock," says Volker. "But if we have anything to say about it, it'll be another 25 years."