Mardi Gras meets The Dead
Grateful Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann debuts new band at Big Room
Rather than make its debut in San Francisco, the hometown of The Grateful Dead, Bill Kreutzmann’s new band, 7 Walkers, took its first flight at the Sierra Nevada Big Room last week (April 6). The new crew’s first performance, featuring the drummer who set the beat for every one of the Grateful Dead’s storied concerts over 30 years and the guitar and vocals of wild and woolly Louisiana native Papa Mali, came off without a hitch.
For 2 1/2 hours, New Orleans funk jams met hard-driving Dead jams, with plenty of reverence to both camps. The versatile George Porter Jr., of legendary New Orleans funk band The Meters, plucked the bass, and Austin, Texas, multi-instrumentalist Matt Hubbard, who’s shared many a stage with Willie Nelson, filled out the foursome.
After a raucous 20-minute funk jam that allowed it to establish its footing, the band suddenly snapped into a crowd-pleasing version of The Dead’s “Bertha,” and the game was on. The extended set included lots of Dead classics, along with a fistful of new songs by Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter, who over the years penned such tunes as “Ripple” and “Uncle John’s Band.”
The smiling, ready-to-dance, ale-imbibing tribe of Chico-area bohemian-music fans made 7 Walkers feel welcome from the word go, hootin’ and hollerin’ and otherwise encouraging the musical merriment in front of them.
The band had actually worked the room for four hours the night before behind closed doors, bringing Porter up to speed and getting themselves performance-ready. (In a poetic coincidence, Big Room GM Bob Littell learned that he and Kreutzmann both graduated in 1965 from Palo Alto High School, where Kreutzmann and The Warlocks, predecessors to The Grateful Dead, were cutting their musical teeth around the area.)
In the end, 7 Walkers was not about dishing out the noodling, perception-altering jams that The Dead were often known for. Kreutzmann’s crisp and bright rhythm attack, however, was at times reminiscent of the style he exuded on The Dead’s 1968 psychedelic relic, “Anthem of the Sun,” and at other times rekindled the deliberate tribal beats he laid down while he was The Dead’s sole drummer in the early ’70s.
Songs selected from The Grateful Dead catalog, each more than 35 years old, included “I Know You Rider,” “Mr. Charlie,” “Turn on Your Lovelight,” “Sugaree,” “Not Fade Away” and “Goin’ Down the Road (Feelin’ Bad).” The group also performed an unusual version of “Death Don’t Have No Mercy” that had Dr. John-like flair and featured some sleepy Hubbard trombone licks over a second-line Mardi Gras-type street parade arrangement. New Hunter songs aplenty included “7 Walkers,” which had a big, fat jam in the middle, as well as the Bourbon Street-evoking “New Orleans Crawl,” and “Sue From Bogalusa” (Bogalusa is a small Louisiana town on the Mississippi border).
Papa Mali, who was thoroughly comfortable and fluent with each Dead song, fronted the band with a dynamic presence in voice and guitar phrasings that played proper homage while still offering plenty of his own swampy components.
Interestingly enough, with all of the experience that Kreutzmann, Papa Mali and Porter brought to the table, it was Hubbard who was the unexpected gem, wielding a wide range of energetic passages on the piano, organ, harmonica and horns, as well as onstage persona.
The repertoire and style of 7 Walkers started to take hold two years ago, when Kreutzmann first met up with Papa Mali at the Oregon Country Fair. Soon after, they performed together in Hawaii and then played a few more gigs together last fall in Colorado, Texas, and at the Las Tortugas Festival near Yosemite National Park. The band recently recorded an album in an Austin, Texas, studio, and the release of the self-titled debut is expected soon.