7 Walkers: Lookin' Down From Heaven

By: Dennis Cook

7 Walkers are currently on tour, including a headlining appearance at Las Tortugas – Dance of the Dead V in Yosemite this coming weekend. Find full tour dates here.

7 Walkers by Jay Blakesberg
7 Walkers (arriving November 2 on Response Records) is the most organic, original music to come out of the core Grateful Dead alumni since the passing of Jerry Garcia. It's worth getting right down to brass tacks since 7 Walkers goes for the creative jugular in such a lusty, exuberant manner. With richly imaginative lyrics penned by Dead scribe Robert Hunter, the band is comprised of percussion master Bill Kreutzmann, psychedelic blues rock marvel Papa Mali, New Orleans funk pioneer George Porter, Jr. and multi-instrumentalist & longtime Willie Nelson collaborator Matt Hubbard. Even on paper this quartet is lethal, but that's nothing compared to the roiling energy when they come together in the flesh. With their collective pedigree, there's an enormous pool of possibilities and their self-titled debut reflects all their swirling undercurrents AND coalesces into fascinating new shapes, fresh colors forming on the surface of things as dark, interesting eddies move below. Put another way, there's something powerful and primal and beautiful going on in the music of 7 Walkers.

7 Walkers possesses a huge range of appeal. For sure, funk fans will pay attention because a member of The Meters is involved and Grateful Dead followers will tune in because of Bill, and while both those audiences will be served, to a degree, there's something broader and more indefinable afoot in 7 Walkers. The culture of New Orleans and the Deep South in general permeates the proceedings; one can almost smell the swamp gas and greenery along the banks as critters and smiling wayfarers wink from beyond the tree line. Deep groove DJs have a potential new toolkit with this music, and there's more than a little Americana appeal in the finely etched storytelling and folklore inside their verses. What's admirable and attractive about 7 Walkers is how they cull elements from each member's past but adamantly refuse to linger inside the familiar. 7 Walkers is new music with an old soul, and it burns and illuminates from within like good bourbon as it seeps into a person.

Bill Kreutzmann by Susan J. Weiand
"It's a real brotherhood in the best sense. There are no big egos in [7 Walkers]. Everybody's just there to make music and you don't have to cater to anybody," says Bill Kreutzmann. "Everybody trusts in each other's musical abilities, and if we have opinions it's to help teach. It's not, 'You should do this or that,' it's, 'Here's an idea. Wanna try it?' It reminds me a bit of the early Grateful Dead. Not musically or in terms of personalities but in the sense of freedom. I was really torn after the Grateful Dead ended, wondering, 'What am I going to do now? How do you follow that? What the fuck can you possibly do that moves you as much as that (and is still moving people to this day, including myself)?' Then this band came along."

"I think one of the reasons my musical persona first appealed to Bill, and Hunter as well, is I've never been in a Grateful Dead cover band. I only saw a handful of shows while Jerry was alive. They were certainly on my radar in the 70s. I bought all their studio records but I never collected tapes or followed them around. I was too busy making music. And I think that's proven a strong suit in becoming part of this project," says Papa Mali. "Now, people are coming to see us and want to hear some Grateful Dead tunes, so I'm learning Grateful Dead material, but I'm still trying to do it in my own way. The Deadheads have been really, really positive and supportive. And they're hipping me to a lot of cool stuff. Bill's such a sweet guy that he's never tried to push anything on me, but the Deadheads will come back after a show and give me a show from 1979 or something and tell me, 'You've got to listen to this!' Now, I'm getting my knowledge enriched."

"It's fun music. I don't normally like talking about music but this band is in my heart," says Kreutzmann. "Everything you do in this band can be heard and really counts. In the Grateful Dead – God bless 'em – a lot of my inside stuff would get covered up, but that's what happens when you have that many players onstage. I love doing the Hunter/Jerry songs with this band, but one of my hard & fast rules is whatever musicians I'm playing with have to do the songs total justice. They can't just copy a song. They need to capture the mood - what it intended originally - and inhabit it. I don't really like trying to sound like somebody else. It's a waste of your energy. Creativity wants you to get out there and discover something new."

Papa Mali by Jeffrey P. Dupuis
"Bill and Mickey will always have The Rhythm Devils as something they do now & again. They're brothers and they love each other and want to play together. Obviously, Furthur's doing their thing and that's really cool, too. But Bill's heart seems to be in 7 Walkers, and as long as he feels that way we're all devoted to it, too," says Papa. "When George joined it suddenly felt like more than a side project. The story of those two guys getting together is something else - two of America's greatest musical icons joining forces. And they're both heroes of mine. If I never did another new thing in my life, I feel good because I got Bill Kreutzmann and George Porter together."

On the studio album Tea Leaf Green bassist Reed Mathis plays on all but one cut, but Mathis' commitments to TLG and elsewhere made his full-time involvement an impossibility.

"I can't say enough good things about Reed Mathis. He's a great friend and a great, great musician, but unfortunately he was too busy to commit to anything but a side project," explains Papa. "When it became apparent that George was not only available but enthusiastic about the project it became a band. We started performing like a band and taking things more seriously."

"The record had already been recorded for the most part, but we wanted George to be represented on it somewhat. So, we went back into the studio while we were on tour in April to capture one more song ['Chingo!'] that Robert Hunter has sent to me and I was working on. Now, we're already moving forward on another batch of songs Hunter sent me, which we've been rehearsing along with the first album material," continues Papa. "I know so many musicians, so when Bill first suggested doing this band I thought really hard about who would add the most. And I realized Matt [Hubbard] was the perfect fourth member for this band. Matt plays all the keyboards plus trombone, harmonica, sings background vocals and he engineered the entire record – a perfect foil for me since I produce our stuff."

George Porter, Jr. by Jeffrey P. Dupuis
"As fortune would have it Reed played on 90-percent of the record. Then after the sessions I was really excited that George came in. I never thought I'd hear George play outside of records. I honestly never expected to be so fortunate to get to play with him," says Kreutzmann. And the combination of these two rhythm forces is as mighty, subtle and succulent as one might imagine. "We come from such different backgrounds yet we're so much the same. Isn't that weird?"

The swing in Kreutzmann's style and the dance floor undertow inherent to Porter's bass work dovetails beautifully in 7 Walkers. It's as if the subterranean well that birthed crucial pieces like "Not Fade Away" and "Boogie Chillen'" springs anew when these two lock in together.

"Well, I always say I was born with a triplet in my heart," says Kreutzmann. "My dad used to drive me to my earliest play dates and I can remember the night I learned how to play a shuffle. I was like, 'Fuck me, that's how it goes!' No one had ever taught me and I just found myself doing it. No one else in the band noticed but it was my own headspace opening up."

Continue reading for insights into Papa Mali's writing collaboration with Robert Hunter...

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