Grateful Dead co-founder Bill Kreutzmann, great groovy Meters bassman George Porter Jr. and hoodoo guitarist Papa Mali have joined together to form 7 Walkers, a rousing fusion of Bay area jam-rock with greasy New Orleans rhythm and blues.
Their self-titled debut, issued Nov. 2 on Response Records, bills itself in the liner notes as a love letter to New Orleanswhere many of the band members have connections: Kreutzmann's mother was born there, and Louisiana native Mali has family from the Big Easy on his mother's side, as well. Porter? He's only the grandfather of the city's head-bobbing signature R&B sound.
But 7 Walkers" ends up as much more than that.
Mali, a co-founder of the defunct reggae band the Killer Bees now living in Austin, collaborated throughout 7 Walkers" with longtime Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter. The talented Reed Mathis plays on all but one track here, Chingo!," where Porterwho has since taken over the role as full-time bassistdebuts.
Together, they often stir up powerful memories of Kreutzmann's old bandfrom the mystical 7 Walkers," which gave the band its name; to Evangeline," where Kreutzmann does such a sensitive turn at the drums.
But 7 Walkers never settle, and never settle in. Before, you know it, they've risen for a Dr. John-ish Dixieland march on New Orleans Crawl," then lathered up some Crescent City funk with (For the Love of) Mr. Okra."
They keep going, weaving in early American roots influences, as well, notably on Hey Bo Diddle." Sue From Bogalusa," which sounds like Chuck Berry doing zydeco, comes alive with concise, sizzling solo by Mali, on a Stratocaster that used to belong to blues legend Hubert Sumlin.
Mali (real name: Malcolm Welbourne; the nickname was given to him by Burning Spear) produced 7 Walkers" in his hometown. So, Austin's unique aesthetic finds a home here, as well, with a terrific guest appearance by Willie Nelson ("King Cotton Blues" also boasts a timeless Hunter lyric in the style of the Dead's Loser") and Nelson's multi-instrumentalist sideman Matt Hubbardwho sings and plays keyboards, harp, horn, even an antique wooden recorder on Chingo!"
This artful blending, in fact, becomes so symbiotic that Someday You'll See," a finished number that Mali brought to the project, sounds of a piece with the rest of 7 Walkers."
Really, the album finds its fullest depth and power on instrumentals like that oneincluding all-too brief blasts of genius in Cane River Waltz" and Airline Highway." That's no knock on Hunter, so much as a shouted testimony to the 7 Walkers' broad musical gifts.
Densely soulful, unquantifiably unique and very fun, sometimes words simply aren't needed.