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Here's some trivia to bandy about when you're having conversation over cocktails. Ask who can name a band that's still intact 30 years after its inception. Better yet, ask how many they can name that still have the entire original lineup. The Stones? The Who? The Allman Brothers? Nope. These groups may retain the names, but none can provide a pedigree.
Then there's the Radiators. Yeah, that's right... the Radiators, a New Orleans-based band known for an eclectic blend of rock, blues, funk, and finesse. Granted, it can't claim the high profile accorded those aforementioned megastars. Still, there's something to be said for a group that still boasts all its original members, is still touring tirelessly, and still makes new music.
"Death and ego have eluded us," Radiators guitarist Dave Malone says when queried on the subject of the band's longevity. "We've never pulled the fake breakup or final-tour ploy. We find the great musical moments far outweigh the bad."
Appropriately, the album they're currently touting is a two-disc compilation called Wild & Free, one that gathers various rarities and live tracks culled from every phase of their career. Several songs can be traced to the band's beginnings, shortly after a jam session involving the principals — Malone, Ed Volker (vocals/keyboard), Camile Baudoin (guitar), Reggie Scanlon (bass), and Frank Bua Jr. (drums) — encouraged the five musicians to start a group. When the Radiators initially formed in 1978, they started off sharing stages with Crescent City legends like Professor Longhair, Ernie K-Doe, and Earl King before they established their own enviable reputation within New Orleans' hallowed music scene.
In the decades since, the Radiators have released numerous albums (first for Epic and later for their own Radz Records label) and crisscrossed the country incessantly, playing nearly 150 dates a year. In the process, they've garnered a devoted following in far-flung locales all over the country, including right here in South Florida.
New Times recently spoke with Malone during a respite between shows in Colorado and an upcoming jaunt that will bring them back to Broward for a two-night stint. He was eager to reflect on the band's past, present, and future.
New Times: So how do you account for the Radiators' ongoing popularity?
Malone: It's probably apparent that we're enjoying ourselves onstage, and the infection spreads. Having good songs and great fans to feed back energy certainly helps.
It seems that Florida has always had an affinity for you guys. Any explanation?
Possibly the Gulf of Mexico connection, but more likely the Caribbean and Spanish influence and the vibe of the music... and the mutual respect and fear of hurricanes.
You guys have known each other a while, right?
Ed and Camile have known each other since kindergarten. I first met Ed at Tulane, where he was one of those "hang out with the philosophy majors" guys. We first played together in the piano room of the student union. There was a piano in there that he particularly liked, and I brought an acoustic guitar. We worked up some songs to go play at the children's hospital to cheer those little people up. But we probably scared the crap out of them.
It would seem the Radiators were a jam-band phenomenon even before anyone knew what a jam band was. What do you think of how the genre has grown and expanded?
The reality is that we were, and still are, a band that "jammed" within the setting of the songs. The songs were always infinitely more important to us than the jamming. I don't really hear a lot of great songs out there in Jamville. Great jamming, though. I think the whole genre came about to fill the void left by the Dead not being around and also because of a revitalized interest in bluegrass-type stuff.
How much of your music is structured, and how much is improvised?
Some of the songs are pretty structured, with sections within for jamming, and others are looser and can go off in any direction. I have no idea what the percentage of each is.
How fluid is your set list? Do you know what you're going to play any given night, or is there a lot of spontaneity?
Very fluid... more like a flood, but with song flow instead of water flow. It's been a very rare thing to actually follow a set list from beginning to end. Ed always writes one out, and he and I refine it right before the show, and then we usually change it anyway. The decision to veer is certainly not scientific. Crowd reaction can influence it, and so can a random idea.
Were you in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit?
I evacuated when it became apparent that moving to higher ground was the right thing to do, especially with kids in the picture. I'm the only band member who had three to four feet of standing water in the house. August 29 was my birthday, and I ended up with a T-shirt from Piggly Wiggly and a cake from Kmart. I actually now live an hour and a half west of the city. My wife was afraid of being in New Orleans with me being on the road so much.
What are things like there now?
The New Orleans I loved is gone and will probably never return. I'm really shocked and hurt that more Americans aren't livid about how GW handled — or not — that whole thing. The club scene is still going strong. But remember — this is a city that attempts to solve most problems by having a parade.
Are you still as eager as ever to go out and tour?
For the first time ever, traveling is a complete nightmare... and a very expensive one at that. We've been doing this so long that our families are quite used to it. The traveling headaches make the time on stage even more precious. We get along fine but don't hang out as much as we used to.
The new album's liner notes are attributed to "Zeke Fishhead." Who's that?
Ed [Volker] used to write a music column for a local rag under the pen name "Zeke Fishhead." Since he writes most of the songs, the fans started calling it "Fishhead Music."
What would you tell folks who are not that familiar with the Radiators to expect?
Hooky songs with a danceable feel, played by guys enjoying themselves who also happen to know how to play their instruments.
So what are the plans for the next 30 years?
Keep doing what we do till we don't do it no more! As they say: "The first 30 are the hardest."