By Emily Eveland
By Sarah Stanley-Ayre
By CP Staff
By Zach McCormick
By Jack Spencer
By Sarah Stanley-Ayre
By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
A seismic shift in the musical cosmos is brewing, and Fishhead Nation is in turmoil.
The Radiators, the idiosyncratic New Orleans institution with just about as rabid a following at this end of the Mississippi, is calling it quits after a proverbial long, strange trip that's lasted 33 years and some 4,500 shows in 450 cities. In all that time, the Rads' lineup of keyboardist Ed Volker, guitarists Camile Baudoin and Dave Malone, bassist Reggie Scanlon, and drummer Frank Bua has remained intact, an extraordinary run matched by the extraordinary tribe of Fishhead phanatics that has grown up around the band.
Technically, only Volker has tendered his resignation, something he sprang on the other four last November, while agreeing to honor the band's prior commitments, including their three-night Minnesota swan song beginning Thursday at the Cabooze. But even if the Rads continue in some form—and that's still very uncertain—it would be fundamentally different without Volker, who wrote the vast majority of the band's originals and sings many of the leads.
For those long spawning upstream, the Rads' trademark fishhead music, so-called because there ain't nothin' funkier than fish heads, works the swampy edges of NOLA R&B, jamming rapturously on a broad array of rock, blues, R&B, and country nuggets that ebb and flow around Volker's eccentric, often elliptical originals, inspiring something akin to communal bliss in the band's staunch acolytes.
Two weeks ago, Volker, who sometimes goes by the alias Zeke, had just returned to New Orleans from San Francisco, so wiped out by the Radiators' final shows there that he had to reschedule a phone interview for the following day.
"I'm just exhausted by all it takes to be able to do this," he said. "The last 10 years, as I've gotten older, the road has gotten harder and, outside of the playin' of the music, the demands of bein' able to support this lifestyle have gotten to be extreme. The job's never been white-collar, but it's been becomin' so blue-collar that it got to be like my body was tellin' me I was involved in the construction business rather than the music business. I've been thinkin' about gettin' out of it for at least two or three years. And I finally had a series of dreams. I've been a pretty fervent dream rememberer since '88. I got very clear signals through my dreams about what would be the right thing for me to do."
Another factor Volker contemplated is that at 62, he's the same age Professor Longhair was when the piano maestro and patron saint of the New Orleans music scene died in 1980.
"Right now I think I'm a couple months past the age of Fess's death. And I have no plans. I need to sorta not be doin' what I'm doin'. I wanna not be on the stage, or be on a plane, or be on the road for about six months to kinda de-stress and detox my life."
What Volker hadn't quite anticipated was the emotional outpouring and subsequently even crazier schedule that erupted at the prospect of the Radiators' final days.
"We're so engulfed," he spluttered. "My original thing, man, was that I gave the band six months out of deference to them, that would give them sufficient time to figure out what they wanted to do after I was gone. I wasn't thinkin' like, oh, we're gonna play twice as many gigs in six months than we've ever played before in our lives."
The frenzy includes the Rads' guest-filled final close-out of New Orleans's Jazz Fest last Sunday, this week's Cabooze gigs (with Peter Ostroushko sitting in on an acoustic-oriented set Thursday), and two East Coast swings before winding up the whole shebang with three long-sold-out gigs—dubbed the Last Watusi—at Tipitina's in New Orleans.
It's fitting that the Radiators play some of their final shows in Minnesota, one of the first places the band ventured when they initially hit the road. "It just seems like it's [because it's] the other end of the Mississippi River or somethin'," Volker mused, "but our fans crystallized pretty quickly back in '82 when we first started goin' to Minneapolis." The local Krewe of DADs has hosted dozens of Radiators shows over the decades, including annual Halloween masquerade balls.
With the possible exception of Los Lobos, the Radiators unofficially have the longest-tenured original band lineup anywhere. (Percussionist Glenn Sears briefly joined the core quintet.) So what's the secret of the Radiators' longevity?
"Famously, the quip in answer to such a question is, separate hotel rooms," Volker laughs. "But for me, it was always a living thing. We learned songs, but I'd say about two-thirds of all the songs that we play, we didn't rehearse those songs. Dave or I brought 'em to the gig and sort of learned them on the spot. And that kind of living, whole unwritten, spirited part of just stumbling into some semblance of grace or harmony; it's that sense of discovery, which started making things always interesting. It's somethin' special: I wonder where the spirits are gonna take us this time. You don't know what kinda animal's gonna be comin' at ya in the headlights."
THE RADIATORS play on THURSDAY, FRIDAY, and SATURDAY, MAY 12-14, at the CABOOZE; 612.338.6425