Every Rads anniversary run has its own contours, but few have been as satisfying as last weekend's two night stand at Tipitina's in celebration of the band's 31st year together. It's simply amazing that a rock band can still sound this fresh and inspired 31 years into its existence. The key to that sense of constant discovery is that the band pulls material from more sources than any other rock group in history, ranging across the entire history of New Orleans music from Jelly Roll Morton on out, referencing a variety of blues, country and classic rock source material from their own experience, and dipping into mastermind Ed Volker's catalog of thousands of original songs, some of which he makes up on the spot. In fact Volker came up with a new one two songs into this run, "The Party Ain't Over Till I Say So." You can tell when Ed springs something like this on the band by the look of astonished joy on their faces as they play along on something they've never heard before themselves. "What am I doing here after all these crazy years?" he asked, throwing his hands in the air.
These shows had an internal pace that made the two nights seem like one long four-set show with a 20 hour break between sets three and four. The instrumental "Monkey Meet" started things out deliberately on Friday night. For the most part Volker and guitarist Dave Malone take turns singing lead over the course of a set. Malone was in top form on the Rads classics "Honey From the Bee" and "Like Dreamers Do" a nifty version of "Last Getaway" and an inspired interpretation of Stevie Wonder's "He's Mistra Know It All." One of the highlights of the set was Volker's spooky reading of his Nostradamus-like evocation of the hard times we now are living in, "New Dark Ages." He wrote it 20 years ago but it sounds like it was written yesterday.
Dave kicked off set two with a mournful "Morning Dew," then Ed played a little "Soul Limbo" riff going into the extended jamming on the suite-like "Number 2 Pencil." With Michael Skinkus on congas the rhythms were flying high and bassist Reggie Scanlan was right up there in mix alongside Malone and the master of pyrotechnics, guitarist Camile Baudoin. Drummer Frank Bua was kicking it all down the road in one of those moments when he was nothing less than the Charlie Watts of New Orleans drumming, slamming and syncopated. "Give the drummer some" shouts Volker during the Bo Diddley vamp "Hey Gyp" and Bua/Skinkus trip off into the drum zone, revving the crowd to ecstasy. Everybody in the place is shouting "Hey" in the right spots during "Soul On Fire," Dave delivers a killer "Death of the Blues," Ed has an "Ace In the Hole" and then, as he builds a segue instrumental passage, sings in a quavering falsetto: "They call me Mr. Pitiful/That's my name/They call me Mr. Pitiful/It's My Only Claim to Fame." As Dave steps up to the microphone to sing Traffic's "Feelin' Allright" you can sense that the whole crowd is primed to shout out the answer line "Not feeling too good myself." The Radiators version of this song, with its corruscating rhythmic flow and density, turns it into a New Orleans anthem.
The New Orleans rhythms and arrangement idiosyncrasies allow the Radiators to turn what would be cover songs in the hands of lesser bands into reimaginings. No better example exists than the encore of the Jimi Hendrix classic "If 6 Was 9," played with a stabbing, staccato rhythm that adds a whole new meaning to the line "I've-got-my-own-life-to-live" when Volker spits it out, no suave talking hipster but hurling it on the ground like a warning. But of course Ed is always the poet and it falls upon him to ruminate "If sex turned out to be divine..." a thought that seemed to lure him into "I Heard It Through the Grapevine," done as a hard blues rather than an R&B tune. When he gets to the repeat line Volker attacks, shouting "Heard it!" against the slamming backbeat eight times in a row. The band flies out of this moment into a frenzied coda, with Malone slamming power "Grapevine" chords a la Neil Young. How do you follow this with an encore? By playing The Who's "Magic Bus" with reference to the close harmonies and rhythm patterns of the spinning top of a single version, not the Live At Leeds version.
Friday night was that good, but Saturday's show started where Friday left off. Dave started off on an extremely high level with "Where Was You At?" and Ed followed with an otherworldly "Total Evaporation." Dave brought out his daughter Darcy to sing along on "Shine On," and at the end father and daughter did a Beatles headshake with each other as they sang into the same microphone. From there on things just rocketed out of control. Darcy stuck around for the transformational moment of "Ooh La La" then Volker unleashed the hounds for "Hot Dog," a song he thought was a cute little throwaway when he wrote it but has become a rabid fan favorite. On both nights, fans of the tune posted signs on the balcony begging for it, and the simple, hard rocking tune brought the night to a fever pitch. The Radiators never waste moments like this and roared into "Burning Down the House," a "cover" that might well make David Byrne wish he had become a travel agent. With Mark Pardis of Johnny Sketch and the Dirty Notes on electric cello this version soared into the stratosphere as the cello and two guitars built an intricate interlace. "We've never had cello on this one before" notes Dave as the band launches into a "Suck the Head"/"Crawfish Head" jam, followed by a scorching "Barn Burner." Tips was bathed in an electric bath of otherwordly energy as Volker tuned into his hotline to the gods and started speaking in tongues during the intro to Fred Neil's "Green Rocky Road," talking about "a man who was always trying to go down to New Orleans/To get himself lost and found." Too bad Neil isn't around to hear hear Volker go downtown with his Hooker ref "Who Do You Love," taking it to the limit with "serve you right to suffer." During "Hot Dog" I casually wondered how they were going to top this off, with "Rollercoaster?" Well, when they ended to set with this high intensity rocker I had my answer.
When I'm having this much fun at a Radiators show things start to blend into a glowing blur of happiness, and I have to say I danced my way through the final set, checking out former bandmember Glen "Kul" Sears on "Out in the woods," grooving to "Low Rider," and just losing it as it all reeled by -- "City of Refuge," "Dreaming Out Loud," all the way through "Train Kept a Rolling." I made it down to the front of the stage for the encore of "Tipitina"> "Junker's Blues"> "Tipitina," then "Paint It Black." It was so good you knew they were coming back for a second encore, a pounding "Gimme Some Loving" that segued into the ultimate sing-along, "Gloria."
Can't wait for Mom's Ball.