Papa Mali (a.k.a. Malcolm Welbourne) made his name in the eighties playing reggae with his Austin band the Killer Bees. Despite modest success, he eventually reverted to what he knew best: the great musical traditions of New Orleans, which he had been steeped in during his Louisiana youth. When he crossed paths two years ago with drummer Bill Kreutzmann, who had enjoyed his own modest success with a little band called the Grateful Dead, 7 WALKERS was born. The group’s eponymous debut, released by Response Records, is a primordial soul stew, stirring slow-groove N’awlins funk in with amorphous Deadhead noodling. Longtime Dead associate Robert Hunter wrote most of the lyrics, and it’s startling how vividly his words and Kreutzmann’s playing evoke a familiar vibe and then upend it. You can easily imagine Bob Weir singing the slow “King Cotton Blues”; instead it’s an intriguing duet between Mali and guest star Willie Nelson. Mali’s gritty, affected vocals are stirring, even when they sound lifted straight off Dr. John’s 1968 classic, Gris-Gris; the slinky keyboard work of Matt Hubbard (Willie’s grandson-in-law and a veteran of numerous sessions) adds weird texture, and bassist George Porter Jr., of the legendary New Orleans band the Meters, sits in on one track. There aren’t enough real songs—Mali’s numerous instrumentals don’t really go anywhere—but the ones that work, like “Louisiana Rain,” “Chingo!” and “New Orleans Crawl,” ooze into your subconscious like an oil spill.
From the January 2011 Issue Subscribe