The Radiators: One Year After the Last Watusi

This coming weekend marks the approximate first anniversary of “The Last Watusi”, a weekend’s worth of of farewell shows at Tipitina’s by the Radiators. After 33 years, the band that provided a soundtrack to the life of a big cross section of New Orleanians and an eccentric nexus to myriad strains of the city’s music history said goodbye to its audience while still at the top of its game.

The Radiators at Tipitina's, May 6, 2011. Photo by Adrienne Battistella.

The Radiators at Tipitina's, May 6, 2011. Photo by Adrienne Battistella.

This is unusual behavior for modestly successful rock bands, which often soldier on to the point of unintentional self parody, but the Rads, or at least band founder Ed Volker, decided the time had come to quit while still ahead. From the moment the announcement was made fans acted as if they’d lost beloved family members. By the time of “The Last Watusi” emotions had reached a breaking point and the crowds during those packed-house nights at Tip’s exhibited a kind of bipolar ecstasy, dancing, crying and hugging each other while drinking the joint dry. It would have taken a modern-day Bruegel to depict that scene.

Even the title chosen for the event, with its obvious reference to The Band’s concert/film The Last Waltz, signified the end of an era. Much subsequent woe was exercised on social network platforms in the months that followed. The loss for many fans was palpable and did have family-like repercussions in that many Rads followers built real-life networks out of their shared passion, befriending and marrying each other, bringing their kids to shows, but mostly building longstanding relationships that only took place on the dance floor. And don’t forget those MOMs Balls, where the Rads were the de facto house band until this past Mardi Gras. The loss of the gathering point for those fans was a real loss.

But not a complete loss. If “The Last Watusi” was the end of one era it was the beginning of another. The separate members of the Radiators joined a musicians’ community that has been creating a new template for itself since the Federal Flood of 2005. Post-Katrina New Orleans musicians were forced to throw out the old rules and create new alliances because the music had to be reconstituted from scratch with whatever resources were on hand to do so. Musicians have crossed genres, learned new approaches to playing and experimented fearlessly as they reinvented themselves and the music scene along with it. New Orleans music has changed in the last six years; though something has undeniably been lost, something else has grown in its place, and the music is no longer isolated. Indeed the world has paid strict attention to what we are doing here.

So it is that the members of the Radiators have created other opportunities to play. Bassist Reggie Scanlan had already been playing with a side project, the Suspects, when the breakup was announced. Working with drummer “Mean” Willie Green, C.R. Gruver on keys, Jake Eckert on guitar and Kevin Harris on sax, Scanlan’s new group started out as a cover band but soon developed a number of strong originals that held their own alongside Rads and Nevilles covers and staples from the classic rock and New Orleans R&B canons. Their just-released first album features several of those songs—“36 Cars,” “Swampthang,” “Oak St. Rag” and “Willie’s Second Line.”

Meanwhile Dave Malone has been doing quality work in a band with his brother Tommy and as guest vocalist and guitarist with Bonerama, a group that does several Radiators covers even when Malone isn’t around. The band’s other guitarist, Camile Baudoin, has his own band, The Living Rumours, which has its own album out, and Ed Volker unveiled his latest solo project at Jazz Fest, playing a few numbers from his recently released album Snag.

Radiators fans suddenly find themselves with a wealth of choices in their quest to celebrate their favorite group’s music. Only last weekend, fans in western New Jersey could see the Suspects, the Malone Brothers and Bonerama with both Dave Malone and Reggie Scanlan sitting in at Michael Arnone’s Crawfish Fest; closer to home at the Bay St. Louis Bridgefest Rads, fans caught a guitar jam session with Baudoin joined by John Mooney and Papa Mali, then were treated to the New Orleans supergroup Raw Oyster Cult featuring Malone, Baudoin and drummer Frank Bua from the Rads along with John Gros of Papa Grows Funk and Dave Pomerlau of Johnny Sketch and the Dirty Notes.

Of course the brand name still gets the most attention. That was demonstrated dramatically during Jazz Fest when the Suspects headlined a benefit show for Reggie, who recently had a difficult surgical procedure after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. The show also featured Camile’s band and a one-set Radiators reunion. The Rads played before the Suspects. The Howlin’ Wolf was packed for the Radiators reunion, but at least half the crowd left before the Suspects began playing.

Rads fans will soon be able to relive “The Last Watusi” shows, which are coming out on DVD. Volker has also been working on an extensive archival project. Just last night I received this email from the Radiators listserv:

Preservatives Volume 1: Her Anesthetic Majesty’s Rejects is the first of what is certain to be a continuing series of archival releases by Zeke Fishhead. All 17 original songs on Her Anesthetic Majesty’s Rejects were written by Ed Volker and recorded in his home studio between July 22, 1999 and September 20, 1999, “…and this but the highlights of all the tuna conjured in those 2 months when I’d be off road from RadzVille Traveling Circus,” according to Zeke.

The Zeke Fishhead Preservatives series is available exclusively at www.livedownloads.com. Peruse the entire Zeke Fishhead catalog at http://www.livedownloads.com/live-music/3,211/Zeke-Fishhead-mp3-flac-downloads.html.

Sometimes, to paraphrase Little Richard, you have to lose what you had to get what you wanted.

  • Great post and thank you for resisting Katrina ‘shorthand’ and properly characterizing the flooding of New Orleans as a act of man.  Blaming the flooding on Katrina is a practice that effectively denies the humans responsible behind all that talk of a hurricane.  As recently noted by Lee Clarke, a Rutgers University disaster expert and author of the book Worst Cases, people seem to want to blame natural events “because if it’s nature or God, then we’re off the hook, morally and practically.”

    http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/47020850/ns/technology_and_science-science/t/titanics-sinking-was-it-more-human-folly/#.T8zgl59Yvsw

  • Great post and thank you for resisting Katrina ‘shorthand’ and properly characterizing the flooding of New Orleans as a act of man.  Blaming the flooding on Katrina is a practice that effectively denies the humans responsible behind all that talk of a hurricane.  As recently noted by Lee Clarke, a Rutgers University disaster expert and author of the book Worst Cases, people seem to want to blame natural events “because if it’s nature or God, then we’re off the hook, morally and practically.”

    http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/47020850/ns/technology_and_science-science/t/titanics-sinking-was-it-more-human-folly/#.T8zgl59Yvsw

  • “Sometimes, to paraphrase Little Richard, you have to lose what you had to get what you wanted. ”
    Or, to paraphrase Editilla the Pun, Sometimes you gotta Get Down to Get Back Up Again!

    John, what a great article about my heroes.

    Mrs. Rosenthal beat me to the punch. Of all the cooler things which have changed since the tragedies from the Federal Flood, being able to follow the unbelievably talented Dave Mallone around town with so many different gigs has to be one my favorites. I am NOT connecting the engineering failures with the break up of da Radiators no way. Such a misunderstanding of such a band would be akin to saying Katrina flooded New Orleans 8/29/05.

    Thanks yous