Ed Volker, the mystical keyboardist/vocalist who masterminded the dense catalog of the legendary New Orleans Radiators, has been busily writing scores of songs since the band decided to retire from the road a few years ago. His latest venture under his alter ego Zeke Fishhead, To the Ice Nine Station, has just been released on livedownloads.com. Though Volker no longer tours, he does play two or three special shows a year in addition to a Radiators reunion every couple of years. One of Volker’s rare live appearances took place earlier this year at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. He selected a variety of his own songs, classics and oddities from the New Orleans canon, roots music from various sources and rock & roll favorites, stripped them down to their bones and fashioned them all with new arrangements. His idea was to work up a series of medleys in which the songs formed a larger whole, and in rehearsals with Joe Cabral on baritone saxophone and Michael Skinkus on percussion Volker developed these ideas to his liking. But when they got to the Langiappe Stage Volker decided to mash it all it one nonstop set.
Volker’s sound check turned into a preamble to the set with Cabral playing along as Skinkus tuned his congas. They opened up with “You’re Gonna Need Somebody On Your Bond,” followed by Gram Parsons’ “You Don’t Miss Your Water,” in this case a blues as Jelly Roll Morton might have done it. A slower version of “Good Thing” got the dancers in front of the stage going strong. Volker walked into the laconic “Everybody’s Tired of Being Real,” reeled into “What Goes Around” and the Radiators classic “Zigzagging Through Ghostland.” Volker’s eerie Katrina song “Where Were You When the Lights Went Out” came next, evoking a time “when the waters rose and the souls froze.” Volker stretched out “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except for Me and My Monkey” into a New Orleans slow drag, getting the crowd to chant “Monkey!” as Skinkus played a conga solo. Volker teased a clave intro to “Hit the Road Jack” then twisted into a sultry version of Jelly Roll Morton’s “Don’t Leave Me Here.” Cabral delivered an impossible baritone solo that somehow evoked trombone-like smears. After the “6,7,8 or 9″ verse Volker made a series of wild, anguished howls and said “I send that last song out to Karl Bremer, Uncle Lionel Batiste and Richie Havens.” Bremer, a longtime follower of the Radiators, had recently passed away, just as Havens and the beloved second line Grand Marshall Batiste had. The local oddity “Tell It Like It Is” followed, not the Aaron Neville hit but Eddie Bo’s composition with the same title, segueing into “Subterranean Homesick Blues” with Volker altering Dylan’s line to sing “Don’t follow leaders, watch your Funky Meters.” The group then flew off into an uptempo “Smoking Hole,” decelerated into a bluesy “Jumping Jack Flash” and ground down to an even slower pace for a spooky, sepulchral rendition of Longhair’s “Big Chief” that reached an emotional slow boil, then gradually picked up velocity until Volker was screaming “Fi Yi Yi Yi” over and over again.
The two-bar break after Volker’s screams hit the crowd like lightning, just that twist of a pause before Volker sang “Chief, you better hold on to your headdress,” the first line of “Red Dress,” the song Volker baptized the Radiators with. The trio was rolling full steam ahead when Volker moved into “House of the Rising Sun,” breaking the lyric down to short two and three-word phrases delivered as rhythmic fragments that reframe the song. From there Volker brought them back through another verse of “Red Dress” before screaming out one more chorus of “Fi Yi Yi Yi.”
The band walked off as Volker outroduced them as “Trio Mollusc.”