By Michael Swanger firstname.lastname@example.org
7 Walkers merge Grateful Dead rock with New Orleans funk
Though the concept of the supergroup isn’t new, it’s difficult to imagine one forming as organically as the 7 Walkers, a seamless blend of San Francisco Bay Area rock and New Orleans funk, featuring Grateful Dead co-founder/drummer Bill Kreutzmann; Austin, Texas roots-rock guitarist Malcolm Welbourne, a.k.a. Papa Mali; legendary New Orleans bassist George Porter Jr. (The Meters, Funky Meters); and multi-instrumentalist Matt Hubbard (Willie Nelson).
The seeds for 7 Walkers were planted in July 2008 when Kreutzmann went backstage to meet Welbourne after one of the guitarist’s sets at a festival. The two men hit it off, hung out together for a couple of days and closed their weekend-long journey with an impromptu set at the festival.
“It’s all been very natural, which is the best way,” said Welbourne en route to a New Orleans studio two weeks ago to record an album with Big Chief Monk Boudreaux during Mardi Gras. “Bill and I met as friends and became good friends before we talked about doing a band together. That makes a big difference.”
After the festival, the two musicians went their separate ways, but met up again for a show in Hawaii. That’s when Kreutzmann asked Welbourne if he would be interested in writing songs with Robert Hunter, the Grateful Dead’s legendary lyricist who penned classic Dead tunes like “Truckin’” and “Terrapin Station.” Naturally, Welbourne agreed and 7 Walkers leaped to its collective feet.
“When I started writing songs with Robert, that’s when it started feeling like a band,” Welbourne said. “My band had a gig at the Austin City Limits Music Festival in 2009, and Bill was my official guest at the show. So we decided to go into the studio while he was in Austin and produce the basic tracks for what would become our first record.”
Kreutzmann, Welbourne, Hubbard and Tea Leaf Green bassist Reed Mathis eventually cut the band’s first album, a self-titled effort that was released last November. When Mathis was unable to tour with the group due to scheduling conflicts, they recruited Porter to play bass.
“It just so happened that one of the greatest bass players of all time was available. When he met Bill and everyone, the band became an entity unto itself. Now we have this New Orleans-meets-Grateful Dead thing, and people are really enjoying it,” Welbourne said.
The band’s debut album is a hybrid of American music that flirts with the jam-band genre, but is equally driven by its singer-songwriter core, making it one of the most musically focused albums produced by a surviving member of the Dead since Jerry Garcia’s death. From the scratchy radio introductions that bind the album throughout, to the mystical title track, to the spoken-word “Louisiana Rain” and low-down “King Cotton Blues,” featuring guest vocals and guitar by Willie Nelson, “7 Walkers” captures the unique collaboration between a diverse group of musicians.
“When I was a teenager, I bought the Dead’s albums, but I was never a Deadhead that followed them around or collected their live tapes because I was busy pursuing my own musical career. I think that was to my benefit because there are so many musicians who walk in the footsteps of Jerry Garcia. Bill felt like after playing with the real Jerry Garcia he didn’t want to play with someone imitating Jerry Garcia,” Welbourne said.
That kind of mindset is what motivates 7 Walkers to keep marching on, Welbourne said. Later this year, the band plans to release a live album and record a second studio record.
“When we record, we think of keeping the songs shorter like those on ‘American Beauty’ and ‘Workingman’s Dead,’ ” Welbourne said. “But when we play live, we can stretch out. Bill’s sound is the freedom of a jazz drummer within the context of a psychedelic rock drummer, and that’s something we want to celebrate in a big way.” CV
caption: 7 Walkers perform Sunday, March 27 at 7:30 p.m. at Hoyt Sherman Theater. Tickets are $35 through Ticketmaster.