It is that time of year again when 1000+ fish heads converged on New Orleans for the annual Radiators anniversary shows. This is the 43rd year that the local rockers have entertained their loyal fans, and the 10th anniversary since their official "retirement" back in 2011. While Rads shows have been few and far between, the epic mid-January anniversary concerts at Tipitina's have always been a mainstay on the winter concert calendar.
This year's shows opened without their usual introductions by long-time fan and concert fanatic Joe Perez, who sadly passed away in the fall. It was a gentle reminder that the community of fish heads who once celebrated weddings and birthdays together is now celebrating retirements and commemorating the deceased.
Night one at the venerable venue opened with "Feel Like Rockin'," which hasn't been played since pre-retirement, followed by the Ed Volker classic "Long Hard Journey Home." The first set of the first show, like many past anniversary concerts, showed some rust and lacked some of lead guitarist Camile Baudoin's enthusiastic guitar shredding. The band paused longer than usual between songs, with the noisy sold-out crowd jostling for position at the front of the stage. The hour-and-fifteen-minute set ended with "Hold Back the Flood" and guitarist Dave Malone's growly vocals on fan favorite "Like Dreamers Do."
After the set, the raucous crowd retreated to the neutral ground across from Tips to smoke weed and socialize with friends and fans they hadn't seen since Jazz Fest. When the band took the stage for set two, the crowd quickly filled the floor and balcony while Malone belted out the lyrics to "Roll Me Over." That was just the beginning of a hard-driving set that featured up-tempo rock-and-roll songs such as "#2 Pencil," "I Got a Feeling," and Grateful Dead classic "Morning Dew."
But the second set was marred by technical difficulties. Halfway through, the venue lost power temporarily, and then completely, during the finale of "River Run." Disappointed fans had to leave in darkness without the usual two-song encore.
Wait. Sorry. It didn't go down like that. It's 2021, and we are living in bizarro world. There were no fans at this year's anniversary shows. Instead, we watched pre-recorded sets on tipitinas.tv through the nugs.tv platform, and the technical difficulties were glitches in the livestream. There were no fans crowding around the stage, no hugs for distant friends, no beers at the bar, no smokes at set break, and no rubbing of the Fess Head. There also was no encore because, well, there weren't any fans to call the band back to the stage, so the shows were about 30 minutes shorter than the usual anniversary shows.
As much as I love the Radiators, it isn't the same watching the anniversary shows alone on a laptop in bed. My wife, who is normally my concert compadre, is in Kentucky attending to her sick mother. I had no one to share the shows with—another gentle reminder of how COVID has interrupted our lives. There were some local gatherings where fans could watch together while social distancing and wearing masks, but I just wasn't motivated to join the crowd.
Night two, the band seemed tighter and funkier as they opened with "Welcome to the Monkey House," followed by "Where Was You At," and then Baudoin killing it on "Seven Devils." From there, the tempo slowed on songs such as "Early Bird Café," "Death of the Blues," "Ace in the Hole," and "Salty Jane." Set one picked back up with "King Earl" and "Fountains of Neptune" before ending with a fantastic "Love is a Tangle" medley as the band seamlessly weaved in and out of five songs.
After a short intermission, set two was filled with classic Radiators hits, including "March on Down to the Valentine," "Let's Radiate," "Never Let Your Fire Go Out," and "Soul on Fire." It was a little weird hearing songs such as "Hot Dog" and "Pass Out the Hatchets" without the usual call-and-response from the crowd. The finale, like the end of the first set, was a medley, but this time it was a smoking-hot instrumental of "Lucinda," "The Magnificent Seven" and The Meters' classic "Cissy Strut."
Usually after two anniversary shows, both the band and I are dragging for night three. I'm not used to staying up and dancing until 2:30 a.m. three nights in a row, and I have no idea how the 70-year-old band members make it through three shows. But this year, the shows were recorded in the afternoon, and each one got progressively better.
The third and final night was an instant classic during which the band dug deeper into their catalog and belted out two-and-a-half hours of hard driving rock-and-roll. From the opening bars of "The End is Not in Sight" to the end of the first set's medley of "Can't Take it Witcha" was one long blast of aural pleasure. Bassist Reggie Scanlan and drummer Frank Bua kept the pace, with Malone and Baudin trading licks on the guitars. The band was on fire, and it didn't let up in set two, which opened with the Reverend Gary Davis classic "I Belong to the Band" and ended with Ed Volker shaking the maracas, jamming on the keys, and belting out "Gimme a Rainbow."
Music has been the biggest thing missing from our lives since COVID began. It's one of the reasons we chose to live in New Orleans. On any night of the week, we always knew we could go out and see great live music. Now, we have to settle for porch concerts and the occasional show at a socially distanced outdoor venue. While it's disappointing for us fans, it must be excruciatingly difficult for the artists who make their living playing for live audiences. In order to keep the music going and the venues in business, we have to take what we can get. Right now and for the foreseeable future, that means concerts over the internet.
The Radiators anniversary shows were no exception. Volker even joked toward the end of the final set: "Thank you for not coming out." While it sucked that our friends from around the country couldn't come to town this year and I couldn't shake my booty for three straight nights, we should all be thrilled that these guys are still around, still together, and still making great music in this crazy, mixed-up world. Hopefully next year, we can do it the right way.