The title of the latest release from the Radiators, Earth Vs. The Radiators, is no a joke. The Radiators have managed to do something that seems to defy all Earthly laws: they have survived 25 years of constant touring while maintaining their original line-up. Most bands would celebrate such an accomplishment with a huge anthology, perhaps a box set, accompanied by a worldwide victory tour and a huge press barrage touting their longevity. However, perhaps due to a refreshing lack of self-conceit that has helped keep the original line-up together for so long, the Radiators have chosen to celebrate by offering up a sampler of what they do best: a double-disc set documenting one of their legendary live sets.
It seems odd to celebrate 25 years of music and memories with something as ephemeral as a live album, but the decision fits in with the Radiators' musical philosophy. Where most musical acts would suffer from the need to examine the past and catalogue "perfect" moments, the Radiators live "in the now", an impulse that runs counter to the archival nature of most "anniversary" events. The album's best track, a roaring ten-minute version of "River Run", begins with a brief cry of despair over the finite nature of life, but through words and an overpowering groove, it ultimately urges the listener to surrender to the flow of time and appreciate the moments of joy and understand the necessity of the moments of pain. Not only is this a respectable philosophy of life, but it is also perfect musical philosophy for a live act. Live acts like the Radiators exist not to hope for some artistic immortality by capturing their music on little pieces of plastic, but rather for the brief moments of on-stage glory.
Of course, a more cynical reviewer would note that the Radiators' studio albums are, as even the most hardcore fans would admit, rather lackluster affairs, and that a concert recording is the perfect way to recapture the scope of their career while still focusing on the band's superior live skills. This would be a convincing argument if the Radiators had even made an attempt at picking material that would best summarize their career.Yes, some fan favorites are here, but also some obscure songs, songs from their most recent album, and even a cover here and there. They aren't even obsessed with focusing on their own chops, as the band often steps back and lets the countless guest musicians, including Gregg Allman and the stage-stealing Bonerama Horn section, take the focus of attention. There is no real rhyme or reason to the song selection, which may have more to do with their propensity to ignore the set list than conscious planning, which suggests that Earth Vs. The Radiators is little more than a really good live album showcasing a band that plays younger than its years.
It seems that this refreshing lack of "specialness" itself comes from the band's own "live for the moment" nature. It seems odd to attribute a specific philosophy to what is essentially a party band, but what better vehicle to spread the message of the Epicureans than such a group? The band's ultimate message with this curious choice for an anniversary album may be that there is nothing that makes any day, even a 25-year anniversary, more special than any other day.
Thankfully the Radiators are such a powerful live force that they really could make any performance special. The Radiators sprung from the same New Orleans muck that gave the world the Meters and the Neville Brothers. Their music grows from the proto-funk of New Orleans R&B and is seasoned with elements from the city's blues and jazz heritage. This pedigree works to their advantage, as the Radiators, unlike most of the bands today labeled "jam bands", are able to create actual grooves that allow their solos and improvisations to leave a greater impression of necessity than the reasonless noodling of most modern improvisational rock and roll.
The real key to their success is that the Radiators have an uncanny ability to incorporate a lot of different genres into their music while maintaining an identifiable sound. For lack of a better term, the Radiators make "wet" music. There is a loose nature to their sound, full of swirly organs and Zydeco-influenced guitar work, that instantly recalls the swampy atmosphere of their native Louisiana. Listening to the two beautiful water-related songs on the album, "Waiting for the Rain" and "River Run", one hears a perfect combination of sound and subject matter that leaves no doubt about why members of the band's cult fan base call themselves "fishheads" (way before those other Phishheads).
The Radiators' unique sound can be best heard in their covers, where they can take iconic songs and make them their own. The band, on what should be their anniversary showcase, brings on Gregg Allman to sing his own "Midnight Rider", complete with boozy back-up by the Bonerama Horns, but the result still manages, improbably, to become a Radiators tune where the mournful country-rock tune becomes a gorgeous exercise in swing (the dreamy instrumental bridge has never sounded better). "Siting on Top of the World" is even better, taking the tragic irony of Howlin' Wolf's original and replacing it with actual joy without compromising the song's blues roots. It sounds like the work of someone sitting on top of the world, trying to bring the listener along with them.
Of course, as with any concert document, it isn't all good. Earth Vs. The Radiators is so long and unwieldy that is impossible to appreciate in one sitting. The jams can meander on occasion, and some songs simply don't gel right, particularly the bluesier numbers such as "Crazy Mona" and "I Like My Poison". Still, as they point out on "River Run", moments of pain are necessary to appreciate the moments of bliss. Earth Vs. The Radiators has enough moments of bliss to justify the duller stretches.