Bill Kreutzmann can barely contain his enthusiasm for 7 Walkers, the former Grateful Dead drummerÍs new band with guitarist/vocalist Papa Mali, legendary New Orleans bassist George Porter Jr., and multi-instrumentalist Matt Hubbard. ñI canÍt believe how much fun IÍm having playing with these guys!î says Kreutzmann, who never missed a gig in the DeadÍs 30 years together. ñWeÍre making art together and having the best time.î
One listen to 7 WalkersÍ self-titled debut album (Response Records / November 2, 2010) and itÍs 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 ñswampadelic.î
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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 OrleansÍ iconic Meters. Hubbard, a friend of MaliÍs 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 bandÍs songs„is something of a dream come true. Kreutzmann has New Orleans in his DNA, literally„his mother was born there„and heÍs always been partial to the cityÍs music. ñI have a real feeling for that music and I get along with the folks down there really well,î he says. ñThis music comes from the Tchoupitoulas, the Mardi Gras Indian tribes. TheyÍre playing tribal rhythms and somehow it connects with my spirit. Plus, I get to play with the number one New Orleans bass player.î
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 momÍs family was from. ñI 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,î 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. ñI am thankful that I spent a great deal of my life in New Orleans,î he says. ñMy 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 Í70s and continuing even now.î
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 Í60s and early Í70s, 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.
ñI would listen to whatever records they would release,î says Papa Mali. ñI 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.î
Since GarciaÍs 1995 death, Kreutzmann has kept active musically, even since relocating to Hawaii. HeÍs 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 HunterÍs involvement. ñI asked Papa one day, ïHow would you like to get some songs from Hunter?Íî Kreutzmann says. ñI was hoping Hunter would say yeah, and he did oblige quite nicely and sent a bunch of tunes. We have more we havenÍt even gotten to yet.î
For Papa Mali, who has released two albums under his own name, the notion that heÍs been given the rare opportunity to co-write with Hunter, whose most buzzworthy recent credit was co-writing most of the songs on Bob DylanÍs 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.
ñI canÍt even describe it,î he says. ñI really canÍt. Bill and I became fast friends the minute we met. HeÍs one of those rare people that you instantly know youÍre 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 heÍs one of the originators of the New Orleans funk sound, heÍs played with all kinds of people and heÍs 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.î
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.
ñMaybe itÍs just because IÍm older and I remember it from years ago, but itÍs more honest,î says Kreutzmann about the recording method the band undertook. ñWe love the sound of it. ItÍs that old, warm, rewarding, great sound. It just feels better when you hear it. It was one of the best recording sessions IÍve ever been part of.î
Every track on 7 Walkers„which the band calls ñan open love letter to the city of New Orleansî„justifies KreutzmannÍs exhilaration. Among the highlights is ñKing Cotton Blues,î which features Willie Nelson guesting on vocal and guitar. ñThat was actually the very first song that Hunter sent me,î says Mali. ñWhen 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.î
Among the other key tracks is ñEvangeline,î which Kreutzmann calls ña love of my life songî and Papa Mali dubs ñone of the most beautiful songs IÍve ever heard, even if I hadnÍt been the one to sing it.î Another is ñChingo,î the sole track on which Porter plays bass. ñThat song surprised me more than any of the others,î says Mali. ñThere are probably lots and lots of subjects that Hunter is very knowledgeable about, and apparently voodoo is one of them.î
ñAll of the songs are special to me,î Papa Mali adds. ñThe title track is killer. When Hunter sent that song and it had all these references to New Orleans and then he sent another one, ïLouisiana Rain,Í 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.î
Kreutzmann also considers the track ñ7 Walkersî a personal favorite. ñItÍs one of the most spiritual songs HunterÍs ever written,î he says. ñLooking down from on high and protecting us down here. IÍm not sure he intended that„I think he just gets into a story and fills out the story.î
Their collaboration, says Kreutzmann, ñreminds 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, theyÍre fun stories, but when you put the music to them it sends them over the top.î
HeÍll get no argument from Robert Hunter. ñ7 Walkers hit the ball so far out of the park itÍs still sailing,î he says about the album. ñIt might actually have gone into orbit. IÍm very proud to be part of the project. This album is sheer joy from first note to last.î