In July 2008, Bill Kreutzmann ran across Louisiana native Malcolm “Papa Mali” Welbourne backstage at a festival in Oregon; the two hit it off and began playing together whenever the opportunity presented itself. In October of last year, sessions started up for an album of songs written by Papa Mali and Robert Hunter. Soon after, they began performing as 7 Walkers. They have been out and about since then and a number of shows have trickled down to etree, whence they were dutifully snatched up by yours truly.
Papa Mali is on the road 200-odd days a year and has an impressive resume. He toured with various blues and funk bands starting in his late teens and found his way into reggae with the Killer Bees. He eventually toured with Burning Spear, where he got the nickname he has gone by for the last twenty-plus years. His first solo record was real dirty swamp music, his second was more raw delta blues with a jazzy bent to it. He has toured with B.B. King, Cyril Neville and Derek Trucks, and is a regular fixture at the big summer festivals, where he inevitably winds up sitting in with any number of headliners and all-star bands.
His stylistic range is pretty broad, and even if he sticks to a mostly rock sound with 7 Walkers, he can throw some funk around and plays a mean slide. At the same time, he tends to keep things simple; there are no fireworks, no longs buildups or screaming, sustained leads. He is humble and versatile, so that he does justice to a wide range of sounds. His singing has a New Orleans/Dr. John sound on the edges, which comes out in some of the band’s swingier stuff.
Aside from Papa Mali and Kreutzmann, the official 7 Walkers band (named after one of the Hunter originals recorded for the album) also includes bassist Reed Mathis and multi-instrumentalist Matt Hubbard, from Willy Nelson’s band, who plays keyboards, harmonica and trombone. Mathis performed on the album and on the band’s early gigs, but not on the recent tour. He was replaced by George Porter Jr. for most of that time, though Matt Houser played on at least one gig. The bass slot is relatively conventional except when Porter is on board, in which case he sings a few (he does a mean Hey Pocky Way) and takes the occasional solo.
Hubbard is a great player whose facility with the trombone allows the band to take on a distinct New Orleans sound. One original on which the horn is prominent is a fun, if fairly generic, tune called New Orleans Crawl, but it is also integral in the band’s highly original take on Death Don’t Have No Mercy. The song gets a full Bourbon-Street-funeral treatment, a surprising adaptation in keeping with the character of the lyrics. They played it at all three of the shows I heard.
For a guy who doesn’t want to play with the Dead, Kreutzmann sure plays a lot of Grateful Dead music: 7 Walkers’ catalogue is almost exclusively GD material. They play a few covers and a handful of cuts from the album, but they also do a lot of material like Bertha, Sugaree, He’s Gone, Wharf Rat, Mr. Charlie, and even We Bid You Goodnight. On paper, this seems pretty uninspired but the approach is liberal and makes for interesting renditions. Papa Mali has no problem switching a few words here and there (“…something like a bird inside her sang,” “Got to get back on my feet someday”), and they managed to produce very interesting versions of Bird Song and Deal, to name a few standouts.
Overall, the band is very accessible: funky, versatile and surprisingly good, while sticking close to familiar territory. Here’s a great soundboard from a show in Denver in early June, which should cover all you need to hear to make up your mind. I’d definitely check them out if they come around your neighborhood.
Up Next: January 1970. I have 10 shows, so it’ll probably be two weeks.