The title of New Orleans' longest-running rock band has to go to The Radiators, still together after more than two decades. The same five members have been in place since their performances -- in exchange for free beer and food -- way back in January 1978 at a Crescent City pizza joint.
Despite road grind and the occasional record deal that goes south, singer-guitarist Dave Malone, vocalist-keyboardist Ed Volker, guitarist Camile Baudoin, bassist Reggie Scanlan and drummer Frank Bua continue to take their spontaneously combustible blend of rock, R&B and funk to loyal "fishheads" all over the country. It's the camaraderie, stupid!
"The bottom line is pretty much that we still like playing together," Scanlan, the band's unofficial biographer, says. "We had all played in bands with each other on Bourbon Street. When we first got together, we played for five hours without stopping, and it was like -- this is the band. The rapport is still there, and we haven't run out of ideas about playing with each other."
The Radiators' continuing resonance was demonstrated on 1997's "Songs From the Ancient Furnace," a compilation that placed favorites ("Doctor Doctor," "Confidential," "Like Dreamers Do") alongside eight unreleased tracks. The retrospective, on Epic, was followed by last year's "Live at the Great American Music Hall," on the indie High Sierra label.
The Radiators' recording history began in 1980, when it made the then-unusual move of forming its own label, Croaker Records, for the double-live "Work Done on Premises," followed the next year by "Heat Generation." The quintet signed to Epic in the mid-'80s and released "Law of the Fish," "Zigzagging Through Ghostland" and "Total Evaporation" before parting ways in 1991. The Radiators returned to Croaker for 1992's "Snafu" and 1994's "Bucket of Fish." The next year brought both "New Dark Ages" (W.A.R.?) and "The Radiators Party On" (Sony).
Their fan base may have grown without the help of official CD or LP releases, thanks in part to the enthusiasm of Tulane University students. Fishheads regularly document their favorite band, just like the Deadheads did.
"We were selling out places we'd never been before," Scanlan says. "People were sending and trading tapes up there [in the Northeast] with their friends. It really did hammer home what we were thinking about the taping. It gets kind of the grass-roots thing going. I think fans feel closer to the band when they're allowed to be more involved in it. It's the same thing with the website."
Tape trading, a huge repertoire (600 or so songs), a penchant for spontaneity and a refusal to ever play the same set twice link the Radiators to a jam-band scene that includes the likes of Phish, Blues Traveler, Widespread Panic and Medeski, Martin and Wood.
"We get a lot of comparison to the Dead and the Allman Brothers and Little Feat," Scanlan says. "It holds up on a philosophical level. We all share the same approach to what we do, but it's not necessarily the same road to get there. We have the same kind of attitude. We can jam and just go out."