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...

Writing With Robert

Robert Hunter by Mir Ali
Not every veteran songwriter could set aside their ego enough to allow another writer to dictate the lyrical content of their work, but Papa Mali isn't your average musician in any sense and neither is Robert Hunter.

"I can't give Bill enough credit for making this happen with his wonderful, generous heart and his faith in me. He had enough faith in me to say, 'Let's be friends,' and then after we'd been friends for awhile, 'Hey, let's form a band,' and then, 'Would you like to write some songs with Robert Hunter?' Wow. Yes, bring it on!" enthuses Papa. "It became apparent to me early on in collaborating with Robert that he'd been listening to my stuff. After the first song he sent me, the next one had something to do with me and my growing up in Louisiana. I think he understands that it's hard for a singer to sing a song unless he feels it somehow and believes it. From that point on, every song I got from Hunter had something to do with the South or Louisiana or the swamp. He knows all about Haitian voodoo, and not the scary Hollywood/Halloween version. He continues to surprise me and blow my mind. It's obvious he's writing from the heart and trying to incorporate my realm of experience in his lyrics. That means so much to me."

Bill Kreutzmann by Chad Smith
The pairing of these talents results in an archetypal swamp, a mythical bayou freed from strict geography. The sort of landscape, emotional and otherwise, that inspired a young John Fogerty and provided steamy intensity Allen Toussant's thicker 70s experiments. 7 Walkers moves through a moist, musky badlands dotted with fascinating characters, strong homebrew and pungent life teeming everywhere the eye and ear falls. This is an act of conjuring, an incantation that beckons one to open up, embrace and engage.

"It truly is. Even though I did the majority of the music to accompany Hunter's lyrics in terms of chord changes, melodies, things like that, I have to give respect where it's due. Bill's drumming is one of the most miraculous things I've ever experienced in my life. I felt that way when I was young listening to the Grateful Dead for the first time, but this is happening now and with me in the same band. Wow. So, I try to keep this unique, amazing person in mind with anything I write."

Papa Mali by Jeffrey P. Dupuis
"Honestly, it's a dream come true for me [to write with Hunter]. I've wanted to collaborate with good people all my life, and I've written some songs with some over the years, but nobody on the level of Robert. If somebody had asked me 20 years ago, he'd have been in my Top 5 Songwriters, no doubt; right up there with Dylan and Curtis Mayfield. To suddenly get the chance to write with somebody of that caliber has been mind-blowing. I can't begin to describe how fantastic it's been," says Papa. "He sends me lyrics and a few clues. He'll say something like, 'I was listening to some old zydeco record when I was writing this, but it doesn't mean it has to be that way.' A lot of times I will take that cue and other times I have my own ideas of what the music should be like."

"As far as changing lyrics, I tend not to do that. There was only one song that I really changed anything on ['New Orleans Crawl'], and once I looked at them side-by-side, I realized his was better. Why would I want to change this gift? My only hope is he enjoys the music I'm putting to his stuff, and so far he has been extremely positive in his comments and compliments," says Papa. "By the time we finally met face-to-face we'd already written five or six songs together. It was very emotional for me, and I think for him, too. There were a lot of people in the room backstage at the Great American Music Hall [in San Francisco], a lot of Bill's friends and older Dead Family people. And everyone was kinda stunned by how it seemed like old friends being reunited when he and I met."

Continue reading for Bill's thoughts on new music and some tidbits about the future of 7 Walkers...

Horizon Lines

7 Walkers by Susan J. Weiand
It's great that there are folks focused on keeping the Grateful Dead catalog alive but for a certain constituency of Deadheads there's been a real hunger for fresh music that embodies the spirit of the Dead with Jerry Garcia but with a wholly new shape free of Jerry's shadow, an entity full of juicy life and forward motion, disentangled from history even as its fully aware of it.

"Well, that's happening on [our debut record]. That's for sure," offers Kreutzmann. "It was so natural, man. Sometimes when things are really working right you don't have to try so hard. Sometimes when you try really, really hard, you might ask yourself, 'Is this really fun? Am I trying too hard?' But this record was really easy. We made it down in Austin, Texas about a year ago and the recording session was one of most fun I've ever had, right up there with Workingman's Dead and American Beauty. And then Papa and Matt worked a whole month adding all the echoes and tweaks and effects. Papa's imagination is boundless. I love that."

"I like new songs. I remember when Garcia would come into the studio with a new song, he had this uncanny ability to bring in a song roughed out on acoustic guitar or maybe electric – it didn't matter too much – and you could hear all the parts of the song. He didn't have to tell you, 'The drums should do this, and the bass should do this.' You could hear everything he intended right there on the guitar. And Papa's that way, too," says Kreutzmann. "When we got to the sessions he had Hunter's songs roughed out and we knocked it out in less than a week. The musicians I hang out with don't discuss what music should be like. We play the way it should be like [laughs]. I'm not real good at talking. Mostly I just like to play music. That says it all for me."

Bill Kreutzmann by Chad Smith
And it's not as if the Dead catalog is scorched earth for 7 Walkers, who work in a fair number of vintage chestnuts into setlists. Yet as familiar as many pieces are to the faithful, 7 Walkers throws some different English on the ball, so to speak. With this foursome staples like "Sugaree" and "Lovelight" sashay like fresh meat on the red light stroll, and the depth of feeling and intuitive grace Papa Mali shows on deep cuts like "Wharf Rat" and "Death Don't Have No Mercy" is simply jaw-dropping.

"When we do Grateful Dead songs, I usually do either a Pigpen or Jerry song. My take is as long as Bobby and Phil are out there doing their songs they're the best ones to do that. And they sound fantastic! For whatever anyone might be thinking about 7 Walkers and Furthur, everybody should know that the love between Billy and his old bandmates is very strong. Billy just feels like he wants to explore some other path at this particular time."

A Bonafide Classic

7 Walkers Debut Album
The album 7 Walkers bears some final thoughts. "Evangeline" and "Chingo!" rank amongst Robert Hunter's best love songs (and Papa's sole standalone vocal tune "Someday You'll See" gives him a run for his money), and the spirit of original rock 'n' roll capers in "Sue From Bogalusa" and "Hey Bo Diddle." Even the instrumentals shimmer with coppery brilliance, the band's charms writ in wordless short form, but no less potent than the poetic language surrounding them. Great care and obvious love has gone into every aspect, giving the proceedings a high-spirited gravitas. 7 Walkers takes us on a journey, making us lean in to pick up a distant radio signal as we weave and saunter ever-further into the mud & foliage, where Bogalusa Sue and Mr. Okra wait, ripe with backwater wisdom and eager to bend an elbow…if you're pouring. It's Mr. Toad's wild river ride, and there's no stopping once the current catches you.

"I guess fundamentally it's the blues but this swamp is an acronym for life. You gotta learn how to swim through it and not get your ass bit," observes Kreutzmann. "My girlfriend coined this lovely term. She said, 'You guys are swampadelic.' I like that. For example, 'Chingo!' sounds very much like Dr. John's old stuff to me. I like when there's theater in music – audio theater. It's very cinematic music. We should be doing the soundtrack for Treme or something."

"If there's any commonality to our songs it's the general soulfulness," says Kreutzmann. 7 Walkers represents a happy, welcome return to the spacious, genre skipping spirit of the late 60s/early 70s when rock represented an all-inclusive vessel to toss together elements of the blues, jazz, country and anything else with tasty potential. "I really like that this album is something different," adds Kreutzmann. "It's important to me to keep forging new ground."

The future of 7 Walkers seems wide-open except to say that something crucial and valuable usually comes out of a crucible burning this hot.

"We all have a lot of optimism for the future of this band. This is a very young band. Our debut album is just coming out. We've done a few tours but they've mostly been things to keep us occupied and in the public eye. Now that our record is coming out, we'll be touring on a much more serious level," says Papa. "We're really looking forward to getting this music out there. I can't say enough good things about working with these guys. So often bands are formed because musical personalities attract one another. In this particular case, Billy and I became friends before we formed a band together. We met randomly and we really enjoy hanging out together. I think because I wasn't a Deadhead fanatic, he felt comfortable with me. Nobody likes being put on a pedestal. If you don't feel that way, there's something wrong with you [laughs]."




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