I showed up at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco on April 9 to see Bill Kreutzmann’s new band—7 Walkers—with limited expectations. I had heard a snippet of one song on David Gans’ radio show, I believe, but somehow singer/guitarist Papa Mali (real name: Malcolm Welbourne) had eluded me though the years, and I didn’t really know much about him other than that he was from Louisiana originally. Photos depicted a large white guy with long dreadlocks and big sunglasses; sort of a cross between George Clinton and Dr. John! Throw in George Porter Jr. on bass and I thought we had the makings for a pretty good show of New Orleans funk; always a good time!
But what I heard at the Music Hall was so much more. First of all, the show opened with a freeform jam that started with some feedback, then found all four guys (Bill K, Papa Mali, Porter and keyboardist Matt Hubbard) sliding into a spooky, swampy intro passage, before Porter laid down a steady midtempo pulse that became a jumping off point for some very cool explorations.
Bill Kreutzmann and George Porter Jr.
onstage at the Great American Music Hall in SF April 9.
Photo: Dave Clark/daveclarklive.net © 2010
Right off the bat it was clear that Papa Mali is a different sort of guitar player—content to build lines with subtle variations rather than flash, but also ready, willing and able to push the envelope in sometimes astonishing ways at the drop of a hat—and Hubbard is a skilled and forthright keys man; they’re a great combo. A happy and smiling Bill was swinging free from the start, all over his kit and cymbals, making it look so natural and easy. I sometimes forget how powerful he can be when he’s the sole drummer, since he can also be so slippery and seductive in his playing. And George Porter Jr. was right on it, too, layin’ down a thick carpet underneath it all. After a zillion variations over the course of about 12 minutes—from mysterioso “Riders on the Storm”-ish moments to more jazz-inflected musings, the band eventually ended up at a rockin’ “Deal”; wow, didn’t see that coming. “Death Don’t Have No Mercy” took on a New Orleans tempo and texture, with Hubbard switching to trombone for a spirited workout, and the long jam that came next—which seemed to be oozing “Other One” as it spilled through the Music Hall, actually turned out to be a drop-cloth for a couple of quick verses of the John Lee Hooker (and before him, Leadbelly) tune “Bottle Up and Go.” OK, now I’m officially confused—but happily so!
That was followed by the first of two consecutive tunes written by Papa Mali and Robert Hunter. No lie, “Evangeline” may be my favorite post-Garcia Hunter song to date. It’s a hypnotic love ballad with a central riff that’s slightly reminiscent of the Stones’ “Moonlight Mile”—kind of snakey, but in this case also dripping with bayou moss: the ghostly guitar drenched in tremolo and reverb, Bill playing with mallets instead of regular sticks, Porter underscoring the plaintive lead vocal with bass accents, Hubbard’s piano dancing delicately through the thick atmosphere. I love the chorus: “She can make the rain clouds open up and pour / She can make the lightnin’ flash, make the thunder roar…” This version clocked in at about nine minutes of sheer bliss—in fact I would’ve loved to hear a couple of minutes of slide guitar in the middle; it cries out for it! I’ve had the riff going through my head ever since I heard it; love it!
Then, with nary a break, came a second new tune, “7 Walkers,” which also had a slightly eerie cast to it, but mostly chugged along at a deliberate New Orleans clip —Papa Mali
Papa Mali brings the swamp-funk at the Music Hall.
Photo: Dave Clark/daveclarklive.net © 2010
played a fine solo that nicely combined slide, wah-wah and sustain in a way that was somewhat reminiscent of Duane Allman in places; in fact his slide playing was very effective all night, even when it was more for color than show. From there, Papa Mali steered the set into a compact but effective “Lovelight,” which cruised into the first of a couple of duets between Bill and George Porter, and then a N’awlins medley of “Hey Pocky Way” (sung by Porter), a brief stab at “Iko” and finally “Shoe Fly”—a song I think I last heard in about fourth grade. Quite a powerful and diverse set all in all.
I’ll just touch briefly on the fine second set. It opened with a pair of Dead tunes—“Bertha” and “Wharf Rat” (the latter giving Papa Mali a chance to show some more depth as a singer)— then went back to the French Quarter for the Professor Longhair nugget “Junco Partner,” which moved seamlessly into another new Hunter-Papa Mali original, the infectious “New Orleans Crawl.” There was a stand-alone “I Know You Rider,” followed by another new tune, “Sue From Bogalusa.” After a potent “Other One” jam and more sparks from Bill and George, the show ended with “Sugaree” (apparently required at every Dead-related concert) into “Not Fade Away.” So, something old, something new, something borrowed… and a bit of the blues! Nice!
A couple of days later, I tracked Bill down and asked him a few questions about his latest enterprise. And here’s a soundtrack to accompany the interview: A great-sounding SBD-aud matrix of the whole Great American Music Hall show, courtesy of archive.org. You can listen here.
Hey, Bill! How ya doin’ today?
I couldn’t be better, man! I’m in Mill Valley right now, I’m going to be going to San Francisco in a while, and tomorrow I’m flying down to Florida to play the Wanee Festival.
Which is always a good time, I hear.
It is. I played there once before and it was a lot of fun. Of course I’m playing with this new band, 7 Walkers. You know, George Porter, Jr. is playing bass in that band now. It’s been so great. It’s over the top! Every dream I’ve ever had is coming true this year, and last year, too. I’ve gotten to play with so many great musicians.
Tell me about how this band came together.
About two years ago now, I was with my girlfriend Amy home in Hawaii and she said, “Have you ever listened to Papa Mali?” I said, “No, who’s that?” And she put it on and I loved it immediately. It’s his original take on New Orleans-style music, which I’ve always loved, of course. That same year, we went to the Oregon Country Fair and he was headlining on the main stage, so I got to watch him there for an hour-and-a-half; he had a three-piece band. I just loved the music and I could tell the cat was for real. Then he came over and met me at my trailer at the Fair and you couldn’t separate us for ten hours. I mean, we just talked and talked and talked.
You know, my mother is from New Orleans.
Really? I didn’t know that.
Yeah, I don’t tell a lot of people that, but it’s true. Malcolm [Papa Mali] is from New Orleans, and of course George Porter, Jr. is from there, too, and still lives there. Malcolm lives in Austin now. “Papa Mali” is a handle he picked up in Africa. When he went to Mali, the natives there called him “Papa Mali” so he uses that now.
Did the band take its name from the Hunter song called “7 Walkers”?
Yeah, that’s right. We were down in the studio in Austin about six months ago working on these songs and we all agreed it could be a great name for a group. It stuck.
The studio in Austin is called The Nest and that was a great place. It’s all analog. Now I’m totally back on analog. We’re even hoping to put out this record in vinyl, too.
Is the record still a work in progress?
Yes, but it’s actually pretty close to being done. I think it’ll be done by the end of May. I’m really happy with it.
You know, originally [the other band members] wanted to fly home Sunday after our gig in Santa Cruz [at Moe’s Alley, April 10] but it didn’t work out; instead Malcolm calls me and says, “Billy, you want to come to San Francisco and record?” He already had a studio lined up! I was in Santa Cruz, but I drove up there and we got three more songs done just like that. One of the things we did is we re-recorded “7 Walkers”—we wanted to see if we could try something a little different with it. And Justin [Bill’s filmmaker/videographer son] was there shooting video.
What’s going on in that song “7 Walkers”?
Well, it’s a Hunter song so it’s hard to say exactly. [Laughs] Hunter always writes with mucho entrendre, and he also writes timelessly. What going on in that song, I think, is protection: it’s like there’s some beautiful, high energy looking over all of us human beings; looking over this earth. Hunter doesn’t ever talk about religion or anything like that, but he will talk about spiritual things.
How is that he came to write songs for the group?
I asked him: “Hey, would you write some songs for my new band?” And he said, “Sure, absolutely!” And Malcolm couldn’t believe it! “You’re kidding! He’s gonna write songs for us?” The coolest thing happened last Friday night. We played at the Great American Music Hall and Hunter was there. I introduced him to Malcolm and the rest of the guys in the band and he and Hunter both almost had tears in their eyes—they appreciate each other so much. Hunter likes the way Malcolm approaches this music, and Malcolm is really aware of not trying to re-write songs, because Hunter hates that and I don’t blame him.
It must have been fun for Hunter to work in that New Orleans vibe.
Definitely. Malcolm asked me: “Did Hunter live in New Orleans for a long time, or did he really study New Orleans? ’Cause he knows more about New Orleans than a lot of people who live there!” I said, “No, that’s just Hunter’s magic.” [Laughs]
So “New Orleans Crawl” and “Sue from Bogalusa” are both his?
Right, and we have another one I really like called “Louisiana Sun” which is on my web page [as performed by the BK3]—I’d really like to encourage people to go to Billkreutzmann.com. There are a few songs on there from the new band.
As someone who’s only seen the Music Hall gig, I’ve never seen your regular bass player. Tell me about Reed Mathis.
Well, I love Reed dearly, and he’s an excellent player; a really creative musician. But he’s playing with Tea Leaf Green now so much of the time, he couldn’t devote enough time to the 7 Walkers band, so George has pretty well taken over that position now.
Wow, nothing to complain about there!
You don’t hear me complaining, do you? [Laughs]
Had you played with him before? I know George was in Mickey’s band for a while…
Right. No, I’d never played with him before the gig in Cotati six days ago now.
If you were to compare him to someone like Phil, I guess you’d say that George is more of a pocket player.
He’s a total pocket player, but he’s also really melodic and has great musical ideas. I’m so happy to be with a pocket player because I need that. That’s really one of the big functions of the bass in most bands, of course. And I missed that in the Grateful Dead a little bit sometimes. Jerry was really the pocket player there. He and I would lock down the groove, and Mickey would do the embellishment on top.
You and George had a couple of nice little duet passages the other night.
That stuff just comes off the top. We didn’t plan it or anything. But he’s really a fun guy to play with, as you could probably tell.
And how about Matt Hubbard? I’m not really familiar with him.
He lives in Austin also, and is an old friend of Malcolm’s. They write great music and they work really well in the studio. He happens to be married to Willie Nelson’s niece. He’s one of those guys who sings good, plays keyboards, harmonica… plays trombone good.
I liked the trombone part of that New Orleans-y take on “Death Don’t Have No Mercy.”
Isn’t that fun? We’re doing some of the Grateful Dead’s songs; songs we covered, or the Hunter songs, which were my favorites. I think the audience likes to hear some Grateful Dead, but it’s not our mainstay; we have all these other songs, and the New Orleans stuff.
Was Malcolm familiar with the Grateful Dead oeuvre?
Oh yeah, sure! He keeps wanting to do more songs. Let’s see, we did “Deal” and “Bertha”… I think he’s really soulful on “Wharf Rat.”
So that would have been his choice, not yours?
Yeah, he brought it in and I happen to really love that song. He was even talking about doing “Dark Star,” but I think we’ll leave that one alone for a while. We might do it someday, but it’s not tops on my list. Don’t get me wrong—it’s an incredible song and I love playing it.
Actually, the show in general was a lot spacier than I was expecting…Like that opening jam that went all over the place before it settled on “Deal.”
Well, that’s how I think. I like free music like that. I like to make up music right on the spot, and that’s what we did on that opening jam. We’ve done an opening jam on every show we’ve done so far, and it feels wonderful because you don’t have to follow any rules. Those guys come up with changes and they ad lib and I can start playing a rhythm and they pick up on it right away. Friday night you probably heard George picked up the rhythm first and I jumped in on the rhythm he was playing. We listen to each other really closely with big ears. It’s like the way we’re talking right now, except with music. It’s really fun.
Hey, I read a really interesting thing the other day I wanted to mention to you. These doctors are being allowed to use psychedelics [for research] for the first time in a long time. I guess they’re using mushrooms [actually psilocybin, the active ingredient in mushrooms]. And I was thinking, “Gosh we’ve been doing that for so long—using psychedelics to help our music.” And now they’re finally looking into how it helps some people with depression, it helps memory, it helps them be happier.
I actually take a little “anointment,” we’ll call it, every night I play now. Just the smallest amount, because it doesn’t take much to open that doorway once it’s been opened.
I’m sure a lot of the crowd is right there with you.
[Laughs] Well, I don’t ever want to take so much where my cymbals are melting or it feels like I’m holding 50 drumsticks or something. But it was fun to read that article—it was like a pat on the back—“Yeah, man, this has been the right thing.” Because the government put out all that hogwash about how it was terribly dangerous for you and it’s going to hurt your DNA and all those lies they put out to try to frighten people.
Is it fair to say the BK3 is currently on the backburner while you’re doing this?
Yeah. Oteil [Burbridge, bassist] is playing with Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi and he loves that. And the Allmans, of course, though I don’t think they’re doing quite as much this year as they did last year. And Scott [Murawski, lead guitarist] has the groups he’s playing with—he’s playing with the Mike Gordon Band and with Max Creek.
So do you see 7 Walkers going through the rest of the year?
I sure do, and longer I hope. We’re already talking about making another record, even though the first one isn’t even out. I bet since Friday night Hunter has probably written three or four more songs. [Laughs] He’s on a monster roll right now.
Malcolm is a really interesting guitar player.
He’s a super guitar player. I especially love how he plays slide or bottleneck. He takes chances, which I love. And then you put George and me in there and you’ve got psychedelic-meets-New Orleans. I think our fans are going to like it because I know most of them like New Orleans-style music I think it’s a really rich combination. I’m a happy man! [Laughs]
So, New Orleans is on your itinerary, right?
Right. We get down there on the April 26th and start playing on the 29th. I can’t wait for this one gig we’re playing there— it’s at a place called Mardi Gras World, which is this place where they store all the Mardi Gras floats, and it starts at 12 midnight. That should be great!
I wanted to mention one more thing if I can. On Monday afternoon [April 12] I went back down to Santa Cruz—after I’d played there on Saturday night—and I went to the [Grateful Dead] Archives in the library there and I had the best time! It was so amazing. I was holding back tears—I was so happy seeing how hard these people are working and how they’re organizing it all so well. And what’s cool is that will be another place for Dead Heads to go and congregate. I think it’s going to be open to the public in about a year and a half. Maybe Dead Heads will be able to see envelopes they sent in, or ticket stubs, or other memorabilia. They’ve got so much great stuff there.
I’d also urge people who have cool stuff they’ve collected from shows over the years to send it to the archives. I was blown away. It’s such an honor to have a place devoted to your history while you’re still alive to appreciate it.
Well, God bless Eileen Law [the GD’s official liaison with the fans] for saving all that stuff!
Exactly! Thanks for saying that. Thank you, Eileen!* * *
We should also note that the latest edition of the Rhythm Devils band, this time featuring Bill, Mickey, Sikiru, singer-guitarists Keller Williams and Davy Knowles and bassist Andy Hess will be hittin’ a handful of shows in July. You can find out more here.