In a cinderblock rehearsal space near the Broad Street overpass, the Radiators fired up the fan favorite “Nail Your Heart to Mine” Tuesday afternoon for the first time in more than a year. With little apparent effort, the song took flight and soared.
So, too, the comedic banter that followed.
“We’ve been doing that one since ’81,” noted keyboardist/vocalist Ed Volker.
“Yeah, 1881,” responded guitarist/vocalist Dave Malone.
“We’re not that young,” clarified guitarist Camile Baudoin.
True enough. On Friday and Saturday at Tipitina’s, the Radiators cap off a sold-out, three-night celebration of their 40th anniversary.
But as Tuesday’s rehearsal made clear, they are still a formidable, focused band, even seven years after they ostensibly broke up.
And just in time for the anniversary, they’ve released “Welcome to the Monkey House,” their 20th album overall.
“None of us expected it to happen,” said bassist Reggie Scanlan. While recording the new album, “the band felt like it used to in the ‘80s. Everything was fresh. The whole thing has come around full circle.”
If so, it’s a globe-sized circle.
Volker, Scanlan, Malone, Baudoin and drummer Frank Bua were already veteran New Orleans musicians when they first convened in Volker’s garage in 1978. They started with Van Morrison’s “He Ain’t Give You None,” followed by a Volker original, “Red Dress.”
That launched the Radiators on a decades-long odyssey as a Big Easy version of The Band, the Crescent City’s answer to Creedence Clearwater Revival. Their “fish-head music,” heavy on groove and guitar solos, fueled many a late night of New Orleans excess, from weekly Wednesdays at Luigi’s pizza parlor near the University of New Orleans to the decadent MOMs Balls.
In the mid- ‘80s, the Radiators hit the road. They released independent albums and albums via major label Epic Records, and enjoyed a minor national hit with the irresistibly melodic “Like Dreamers Do.”
Logging more than 4,500 performances in 33 years eventually wore them down; Volker, especially, grew weary of travel and its related hassles. And so the Radiators said goodbye with a series of farewell shows in 2011.
“We lucked out beyond anything we could have hoped for,” Scanlan said. “But for 33 years, we spent more time with each other than our families. It got to be a grind over the last few years. It was burnout.”
Their farewell wasn’t forever. The Radiators have regrouped each January at Tipitina’s, and every couple years at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.
They’ve also continued to collaborate in various configurations. In July, Volker recruited Malone, Scanlan and Bua to join him at Chickie Wah Wah; only Baudoin, who moved with his wife to her native Minnesota last year, wasn’t there.
Performing as the Rattlers, the four musicians “had a great time,” Scanlan said. “Things go in cycles. As time passes, you forget about the aggravations that happen on a day to day basis in a band. What you have left is why you did it in the first place. You appreciate what you used to have. And we still like hanging out with each other. We still get along.”
With the 40th anniversary looming, they considered recording one or two new songs. That evolved into a whole album.
Wanting to record in a relaxed setting, they convened at the home studio of guitarist Jake Eckert, Scanlan’s bandmate in the New Orleans Suspects. With Eckert and Suspects saxophonist Jeff Watkins guiding the sessions, the Radiators cut 16 songs in two days. Around half the finished tracks are first takes.
“The whole idea was to do it fast and not fuss over it,” Scanlan said. “We stayed out of the way and let the music happen.”
Most songs on “Welcome to the Monkey House” turned up occasionally in Radiators sets over the years, but didn’t stick around. “When we used to play them live, they didn’t do much for me one way or the other,” Scanlan said. “But they all took on a new life in the studio, and presented new aspects of themselves.”
Malone wrote “16 Monkeys on a Seesaw,” one of two songs culled from Raw Oyster Cult, his post-Radiators project with Baudoin and Bua. “King Earl,” an ode to the late New Orleans songwriter and guitarist Earl King, was co-written by Malone, his brother Tommy, and Volker.
Volker penned the rest, including “Doubled Up in a Knot,” which in the early years of the Radiators served as an onstage lead-in to “Love Is a Tangle.”
The recording session “was a rebirth almost -- everybody felt that,” Scanlan said. “It felt like when we first got together.”
Which isn’t to say a full-fledged, full-time reunion is afoot. “I don’t think anybody wants to go back on the road like we used to be,” Scanlan said.
In fact, they haven’t performed outside New Orleans since 2011. Scanlan, for one, would like to revisit old Radiators strongholds such as San Francisco, Minneapolis and New York. But Volker remains reluctant.
“We get offers all the time,” Scanlan said. “Ed may be getting a little closer. But for right now, let’s just deal with the reunion shows.”
More local gigs are in the works for the spring festival season. Beyond that, Scanlan is sure of only one thing.
“We’re always going to be a family -- we have too much history. And we’ll be a band forever. We just don’t tour.”
At a private show in December, the Radiators performed “Welcome to the Monkey House” in its entirety, then jammed for the entire second set. Prior to that gig, they hadn’t performed since last January’s reunion.
Monday’s rehearsal at ArtEgg Studios was their first in more than a year. By Tuesday’s session, whatever rust remained had been shaken off.
They tumbled into Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Down on the Corner,” riding atop Bua’s shuffling drum pattern. At its conclusion, they exchanged satisfied smiles. “Like that,” Malone said approvingly.
This week’s three concerts at Tipitina’s -- they'll play to more than 800 fans per night -- will each feature a totally different setlist. They worked through the long list Tuesday. Malone and Baudoin locked into the sunburst guitars and sharp solos of “Number Two Pencil.” Later, Malone corrected a Scanlan bass part. “Don’t beat yourself up,” he joked. “I’ll do that.”
They arrived at the oldie “Law of the Fish.” “We need to do that?” Volker asked his bandmates.
They didn't. They still knew it by heart.
And so the Radiators moved on, at 40 years and counting.