Bill Kreutzmann can barely contain his enthusiasm for 7 Walkers, the former Grateful Dead drummer’s new band with guitarist/vocalist Papa Mali, legendary New Orleans bassist George Porter Jr., and multi-instrumentalist Matt Hubbard. “I can’t believe how much fun I’m having playing with these guys!” says Kreutzmann, who never missed a gig in the Dead’s 30 years together. “We’re making art together and having the best time.”
One listen to 7 Walkers’ self-titled debut album (Response Records / November 2, 2010) and it’s easy to understand why Kreutzmann is so pumped. With nearly all of its songs co-penned by Papa Mali and longtime Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter, 7 Walkers is an electrifying hybrid of classic Bay Area rock and New Orleans funk. Kreutzmann calls it “swampadelic.”
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The original 7 Walkers lineup included bassist Reed Mathis, who performs on all of the album cuts except one. When Mathis returned to his regular duties with the Bay Area jam band Tea Leaf Green following the 7 Walkers sessions, Mali recruited Porter, a founding member of New Orleans’ iconic Meters. Hubbard, a friend of Mali’s who has worked with Willie Nelson for several years, was chosen to fill out the band on keyboards, trombone, and other instruments.
For both Kreutzmann and Papa Mali, 7 Walkers—whose name is borrowed from one of the band’s songs—is something of a dream come true. Kreutzmann has New Orleans in his DNA, literally—his mother was born there—and he’s always been partial to the city’s music. “I have a real feeling for that music and I get along with the folks down there really well,” he says. “This music comes from the Tchoupitoulas, the Mardi Gras Indian tribes. They’re playing tribal rhythms and somehow it connects with my spirit. Plus, I get to play with the number one New Orleans bass player.”
The Crescent City, of course, also impacted native Louisianan Papa Mali incalculably. Although he grew up in Shreveport, he made frequent trips during his youth to New Orleans, where his mom’s family was from. “I bought my clothes and my records there, saw lots of live music there and began to forge my own personal style and musical identity in New Orleans,” he says.
The first band Papa Mali ever saw performing live was the Meters, and witnessing Dr. John work his voodoo magic back when Mac Rebennack had just become the Night Tripper also had a huge effect on him. “I am thankful that I spent a great deal of my life in New Orleans,” he says. “My music certainly reflects it. Much, if not most, of my musical development occurred there. I often played with some of the best talent that the city had to offer, starting in the early ’70s and continuing even now.”
Back home in Shreveport, young Malcolm began playing guitar at age five. In addition to the local sounds, he absorbed all that the rock world had to offer in the late ’60s and early ’70s, moving along from the great instrumental bands like the Ventures to the Beatles and the other major bands of the era. A self-described freak in a town that had few, Malcolm—he became Papa Mali later on while touring with reggae great Burning Spear—was initiated irrevocably into the world of the Grateful Dead at age 15, when he and a carload of friends snuck off to see the San Franciscans at a 1972 Dallas gig. That experience, too, had a profound impact.
“I would listen to whatever records they would release,” says Papa Mali. “I always tried to keep up with the Dead and what they were doing and I always loved their songs. I was a huge fan, especially of the Robert Hunter-Jerry Garcia material. That never left my consciousness. I will always love that body of work.”
Since Garcia’s 1995 death, Kreutzmann has kept active musically, even since relocating to Hawaii. He’s toured in various configurations featuring other ex-Dead members and has piloted a few bands of his own. But 7 Walkers is something special to him, due not only to the chemistry among the players but also to Hunter’s involvement. “I asked Papa one day, ‘How would you like to get some songs from Hunter?’” Kreutzmann says. “I was hoping Hunter would say yeah, and he did oblige quite nicely and sent a bunch of tunes. We have more we haven’t even gotten to yet.”
For Papa Mali, who has released two albums under his own name, the notion that he’s been given the rare opportunity to co-write with Hunter, whose most buzzworthy recent credit was co-writing most of the songs on Bob Dylan’s 2009 Together Through Life album—as well as the chance to collaborate with musicians of the caliber of Kreutzmann, Porter and Hubbard—is somewhat daunting.
“I can’t even describe it,” he says. “I really can’t. Bill and I became fast friends the minute we met. He’s one of those rare people that you instantly know you’re going to be friends with for the rest of your life. And I think that him having enough faith in me to make that introduction to Hunter and get that happening was the greatest gift that a friend can give you. George is a consummate musician. Besides the fact that he’s one of the originators of the New Orleans funk sound, he’s played with all kinds of people and he’s familiar with the jam band scene too, so he can improvise really well and come up with new ideas on the spot. I think Bill found it refreshing to find a soulmate in the bass department that could stretch out and hold it down at the same time. As for Matt, he is the secret weapon, really. He plays piano really well, he sings really well, he plays trombone and harmonica really well.”
The songwriting partnership between Hunter and Papa Mali took a decidedly contemporary course—Hunter emailed his lyrics and Papa Mali then shaped songs from them. Each of the musicians contributed ideas until everyone was satisfied, then 7 Walkers adjourned to Austin, where Papa Mali has lived since the 1980s. There, at the Nest recording studio, the band lay down tracks on old-school analog tape machines.
“Maybe it’s just because I’m older and I remember it from years ago, but it’s more honest,” says Kreutzmann about the recording method the band undertook. “We love the sound of it. It’s that old, warm, rewarding, great sound. It just feels better when you hear it. It was one of the best recording sessions I’ve ever been part of.”
Every track on 7 Walkers—which the band calls “an open love letter to the city of New Orleans”—justifies Kreutzmann’s exhilaration. Among the highlights is “King Cotton Blues,” which features Willie Nelson guesting on vocal and guitar. “That was actually the very first song that Hunter sent me,” says Mali. “When Matt suggested that maybe he could get Willie to contribute a track, this song came to mind immediately, because it has that classic Old Western theme about it: going down to the barroom and picking a fight.”
Among the other key tracks is “Evangeline,” which Kreutzmann calls “a love of my life song” and Papa Mali dubs “one of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard, even if I hadn’t been the one to sing it.” Another is “Chingo,” the sole track on which Porter plays bass. “That song surprised me more than any of the others,” says Mali. “There are probably lots and lots of subjects that Hunter is very knowledgeable about, and apparently voodoo is one of them.”
“All of the songs are special to me,” Papa Mali adds. “The title track is killer. When Hunter sent that song and it had all these references to New Orleans and then he sent another one, ‘Louisiana Rain,’ and it had all these references to Louisiana and the bayous, I realized that he had checked out what I do and was writing for my voice and we were making a connection.”
Kreutzmann also considers the track “7 Walkers” a personal favorite. “It’s one of the most spiritual songs Hunter’s ever written,” he says. “Looking down from on high and protecting us down here. I’m not sure he intended that—I think he just gets into a story and fills out the story.”
Their collaboration, says Kreutzmann, “reminds me very much, and not because of the personalities or anything, of Garcia and Hunter working together, in that really tight fashion. Those words, if you just read them, they’re fun stories, but when you put the music to them it sends them over the top.”
He’ll get no argument from Robert Hunter. “7 Walkers hit the ball so far out of the park it’s still sailing,” he says about the album. “It might actually have gone into orbit. I’m very proud to be part of the project. This album is sheer joy from first note to last.”