Fishing for satisfaction
The independent model of a music career hardly seems a radical idea these days. Lots of bands see it as the most sensible model imaginable. You form a band with friends and fellow players with similar tastes in music. You play and play and play in your hometown, seeing if any sparks are commencing onstage and on the dance floor. As word spreads, through audience buzz and bootleg tapes, the band expands its radius into neighboring towns. When the time comes to record an album, you find an affordable local studio, and you put the CD out yourselves, selling it at gigs, on your website and at the neighborhood record shops. Only after you’ve proved you can draw crowds in a sizable region do you pursue the backing of a record label, armed with the knowledge that the band is financially viable without such support.No such model existed in early 1978 – Jan. 28, for statistic snobs – when five young musicians gathered in the New Orleans garage of keyboardist Ed Volker. All the five – guitarists Dave Malone and Camile Baudoin, bassist Reggie Scanlan and drummer Frank Bua, in addition to Volker – knew was that jamming on such tunes as Van Morrison’s “He Ain’t Give You None” felt good enough to do it again. Within a month, the band, dubbed the Radiators – a bit of a takeoff on Volker’s previous group, the Rhapsodizers – had a gig at the New Orleans music institution Tipitina’s.Twenty-seven years later the Radiators – “the same five knuckleheads,” as Malone puts it – are still at it. The Rads play gig No. 3,680-something on Saturday, March 5, at the Belly Up, a show they have dedicated to the memory of Hunter S. Thompson. And while there have been record deals, publicity operations and management schemes here and there on that long trail, the band is still basically on a self-guided tour. No guru, no method, no teacher, in the words of one of the band’s many strong influences, Van Morrison.”We did all these things,” said Malone, referring to the band’s self-released albums and its building an audience through touring rather than radio play – “but not in any way thinking we were setting a model for anything. We just did what needed to be done, and we were stubborn and hardheaded, so we did things our way. Our approach from day one was to get onstage, see what the crowd was digging and make right or left turns.”
That way should seem familiar to any number of jam bands that began their own lengthy, odd journeys a decade after the Radiators were a coast-to-coast draw. For four years, the band barely strayed out of New Orleans, making it only as far as Austin to the west and Baton Rouge to the north. Instead, their nonstop tour of New Orleans dives – Luigi’s to the Dream Palace to Tipitina’s to the Maple Leaf – earned them a solid, local fan base for their mix of electric blues, New Orleans piano boogie and rootsy rock. When, in 1982, they finally began traveling out of their neighborhood, loyal Tulane University graduates in New York, Philadelphia and Chicago flocked to their gigs for a hit of New Orleans, college days and the Rads’ self-styled “Fish Head Music.”I was among that core of Tulane students for whom it was normal to attend more Radiators shows than college lectures. Which is fair, since the Rads came first: The day before classes started, I saw my first (of 120 or so) Rads show on the quad across the street from my dorm. Back then, seeing the Radiators could be anything from a packed two-night stand at Tipitina’s to a night at Jimmy’s where the band’s goal would be to outlast the final audience member. After I transferred to Rutgers, I was part of the Tulane Diaspora that introduced friends to the Radiators at places like the Lone Star Cafe in Greenwich Village and Philadelphia’s Chestnut Cabaret.After I moved to Aspen in the early ’90s, I was in a series of bands that relied heavily on the Radiators songbook for material.In the mid-’80s, after the Radiators had released two albums on their own Croaker Records, word filtered down to the Fishheads that the band was being signed to a record label. It would be 1987 – nine years after those first gigs – when “Law of the Fish” was finally released and the Radiators were first heard on commercial radio. But after three albums on the Epic label and its parent, Sony, the Rads parted ways with the major-label world in 1991. (Sony’s Legacy label issued the best-of collection “Songs From the Ancient Furnace” in 1997.) Virtually every one of the band’s recording since then has been released by a different entity, including Boulder’s W.A.R.? Records, which handled 1995’s “New Dark Ages.”
Malone says the band may have failed to capitalize on the opportunity that came with its major-label years. “When we were on Epic, we were riding high, playing big places and selling them out,” he said. “Stuff was on the radio. At that time we should have gotten good management and a good business plan.”But it wouldn’t have mattered.”While the Radiators’ recording success has been spotty at best, the band has had better fortunes as a touring act. The band plays prominent venues such as Irving Plaza and B.B. King’s Blues Bar in New York City and the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco, and good-sized clubs and theaters and major festivals in between. But the Rads have also hit a plateau in performing. While they have added many cities to their itinerary, and even finally toured Europe in 2001, many of the venues they play now are no bigger or better than those they played 15 years ago.Asked if he’s satisfied with the Radiators’ track record, the generally upbeat Malone replied, “Oh no, not at all.
“I’m satisfied we’re together this long, and for the most part without compromising. But I’m not at all satisfied with how many people know about us and what we do. I’m not satisfied with our income.”If there is a particular point that irks Malone, it is how busy the band has to stay to cover their nut. Last year the band played some 135 dates. Malone says the schedule is necessary to cover the cost of employees’ salaries. For Malone, being onstage remains the most enjoyable part of being in the band, but touring in the manner of a band still trying to establish itself leaves little time for developing and recording material.”If we didn’t have to play so many gigs, it would be nice to have big chunks of time to take off and write and work on the creative aspect,” said Malone, a native of Edgard, La., who lives a few blocks from the Tulane campus in uptown New Orleans. (Malone’s brother Tommy is lead singer and guitarist for the subdudes.) “It’s disappointing that for a band with so many songs we don’t have time to record them all.”Malone’s dissatisfaction seems balanced by pride in the Radiators’ accomplishments, and the fact that, after 27 years, the band is no nostalgia act that relies solely on old songs and aged fans.
One accomplishment is the mere fact of survival. Malone can point to just two bands – ZZ Top and Los Lobos – who have lasted as long, uninterrupted, with essentially the same personnel. Another is that Malone believes the Rads are better than they’ve ever been, and still plowing new ground.”As long as there are more songs and more twists to take onstage, I won’t be satisfied,” he said. “But I’m satisfied with the fact that the music is still developing.”The Rads have studiously ignored any musical trends that have emerged over the last quarter century; their sound remains the same guitar-driven roots-rock. Hip-hop, trance and modern pop haven’t seeped in at all. Malone says the band began with so many influences, from country to r & b to funk to early rock ‘n’ roll, that they are still squeezing music out of those styles.Perhaps more fundamental to the band’s freshness is the endless supply of songs. The wealth of material Malone refers to is no exaggeration. From the beginning, what made it so much fun to follow the Rads from town to town was the fact that, like no other band probably ever, the Rads refreshed their setlist every night. Apart from covering dozens of acts – from Elvis Costello to Michael Jackson, New Orleans piano legend Professor Longhair to film composer Elmer Bernstein – the Radiators, especially Volker, wrote, and still write, reams of songs. And if the legends are true, the material that surfaces onstage is only the a portion of the tip of the iceberg.
“You have no idea,” said Malone in a voice that conveys conviction. “Ed writes constantly, and what you see is only 2 percent of it. I have rubber storage boxes of songs nobody will ever hear. We pick the four or five from 30 that are most Rads-friendly. And of those four or five, only two will stick.”It’s amazing. Aside from the interaction onstage where we’re hitting on all cylinders, and I’m feeling we’re the best band in the world, the reason I’m still in this band is because of Ed and his songs.”And there are still high points to be celebrated. Early last year, the band celebrated a half-century of existence with a three-night bash at Tipitina’s. The run of concerts, when the band was joined by Meters bassist George Porter Jr. and Allman Brother Gregg Allman, was released on the two-CD set and DVD, both titled “Earth vs. the Radiators: The First 25.” The music, supplemented by saxophonist Karl Denson and the Bonerama Horns and featuring a handful of new songs, represents, if not a high point, at least an example of the willingness to still take those artistic twists and turns.With regard to the Radiators, Malone says, “Satisfaction is not a word I’d ever use.” Still, there is a recognition that 27 years and counting of Fish Head Music is something to take pride in, as is outlasting numerous next big things who have soared and fizzled out in the music world. It may not be the most celebrated or profitable place in rock ‘n’ roll history, but it is a more noteworthy legacy than Hanson or Hootie & the Blowfish.
“What we have is much more preferable to having a band with a huge hit and a huge following for a year, and the next year they’re looking for a new direction,” said Malone.Malone may not like the word, but he does seem to have at least a taste of satisfaction in the fact that the Radiators have piled up some 3,800 gigs – and that there’s another one around the corner.”We just keep cruising along,” he said. “We’re cynical about the business side. But the music takes care of all that.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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