The Radiators emerged from underground status as one of the country’s best unsigned groups in 1978 and became a trademark of New Orleans rock. The band was a kind of psychedelic exfoliation of the Meters, working off of material fashioned from a palette that ranged from Jelly Roll Morton to Professor Longhair, Leadbelly to Taj Mahal, Beatles and Stones to Talking Heads. Thirty-plus years later the band called it quits at the top of its game and celebrated the moment with a wild three-night finale at Tipitina’s. Here, we have a recap of that magnificent weekend on three discs that each represent a single night of the run.
In some ways disc one, the “acoustic” set, is the most satisfying because the lower volume results in the band members paying closer attention to what the others are playing, and the vocals stand out more prominently in the mix. The contrast between principal songwriter Ed Volker’s introspective, otherworldly singing and frontman Dave Malone’s gruff, emotional growls is a key to one aspect of the band’s appeal. The two voices come from completely different perspectives and inspire different sectors of the crowd, yet they complement each other perfectly to anchor a band identity built on such a large range of influences and original ideas. Highlights include the Volker gems “Diamond Joe,” “Oh Daniel,” “Soul On Fire” and “The Ballad of Delia Green.”
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The frenzy of the crowd and the intensity of the performances grew exponentially over the course of the weekend. Disc two opens with Dave Malone’s instrumental Meters tribute “Metric Man” and just takes off from there. “Save the last watusi for me!” Volker shouts during the extended “#2 Pencil” suite, which leads to one of the best versions of “Total Evaporation” the band ever played. Like so many of the songs, it took on a completely new meaning as the band finished its career, with Volker screaming “Gone, Baby Gone!” over and over on the final vamp. Reggie Scanlan’s sinewy bass line and Frank Bua’s second line-tinged drumming animate the smoky, swamp crawl of “Crawfish Head,” with its brilliant segue into a version of the Five Keys doo-wop classic “Ling Ting Tong.” From there the band rolled into Malone’s “I Don’t Speak Love,” complete with a “Norwegian Wood” tease. Volker is as soulful as I’ve ever heard him, sounding like a dying man on “When Her Snake Eyes Roll” before launching into an incredibly hot version of “Soul of the World.”
All stops came out on the final show as the fierce two-guitar exchange between Malone and Camile Baudoin set the tone for a night of Dave madness on crisp, intense versions of “My Last Getaway” (with a burning, shredding guitar duel), the instrumental “Monkey Meet,” a shocking “Daddy’s Coming Home” and Yardbirds-charged “Where Was You At?” (more unbelievable guitaristics, especially Baudoin’s jaw- dropping closing solo). At moments like this, the Radiators emit some kind of strange energy that I’ve never experienced from any other rock act — a combination of power-amp dynamics and incredible rhythmic subtlety. The undulation makes them roll as well as they rock, and Volker works his incantations in between the cracks on “Cocktail Music,” the glorious “River Run,” an awesomely funky “Hot Lube,” with Volker’s declamations on Luigi’s, where it all started, followed by an uncredited plunge into “Red Dress,” then the hedonistic joy of “Let the Red Wine Flow.” The waning moments of the band’s existence summoned the existential glory of “Waiting for the Rain,” and Volker’s magnificent ode to the power of the transistor, “Lost Radio.” Suddenly, it ended just as it started for many of us, with “Like Dreamers Do.” Could it really be over?