7 Walkers aren't just a Grateful Dead cover band. The group has been working with longtime Dead lyricist Robert Hunter on some new tunes with a forward creative momentum in mind.
Gloom and doom threatens the final night of the 23rd annual Old Settler's Music Festival in the hill country just outside of Austin, Texas. It's been raining off and on throughout the day and a torrential downpour comes down for several minutes as I'm driving to the site. The rain lightens to a drizzle by the time arrive, but there's no music coming from either stage as technical difficulties brought on by the heavy weather abound. The smaller Bluebonnet Stage has had its power lines completely submerged, causing the Band of Heathens to have to make their best effort at delivering an acoustic set without power.
But the festival crew is quick to save the day. Bales of hay are brought in to help dry up the muck and technicians work feverishly to restore power in time for the 7 Walkers to close out the evening on the Bluebonnet Stage with their 9:45 pm set. This is a new band with some well-known talents, featuring Grateful Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann and Louisiana/Austin guitarist Papa Mali (aka Malcolm Welbourne). Together, they combine the San Francisco and New Orleans sounds for a tasty new musical gumbo. Local fans who caught Papa Mali's set at last October's Austin City Limits Festival got a taste of this new project when Kreutzmann sat in for a surprise guest appearance. It was raining that day too, but the band used the conditions as inspiration for a great set, throwing in nods to the weather like the Dead's “Bertha”, where a joyous crowd sang “It's been all night pouring, but not a drop on me.”
But by the time the 7 Walkers hit the stage here, the skies are dry and it's become a beautiful night for rock 'n' roll. George Porter Jr. from The Funky Meters was supposed to be on bass, but apparently couldn't make it, perhaps trapped in New Orleans by the weather. This is Austin though, so there are probably any number of candidates to substitute and the band has tapped New Bohemians bassist Brad Houser, who fills in admirably. The band opens with a freeform, polyrhythmic jam that gets things flowing before dropping into the Jerry Garcia classic, “Deal”. With his long gray dreadlocks and rotund figure, Mali looks sort of like a dready version of Garcia, and he certainly seems like a kindred spirit. His guitar work leans toward the blues, but he can inject some cosmic flash too. Here he works off of Kreutzmann's rock solid beat to create a sweet jam.
The band then moves into an old Dead rarity, “Death Don't Have No Mercy”, but with keyboardist Matt Hubbard breaking out his trombone to help create a New Orleans soul version of the tune. Another number starts off with a heavy jam that sure sounds reminiscent of the Dead's '60s classic “The Other One”, but turns out to be a new arrangement of blues classic “Bottle Up and Go”. Hubbard dazzles with some very psychedelic keyboard work, while Kreutzmann drives the beat with one flourish after another. The band works in and out of the groove for a big jam that gets the crowd going, highlighted by Mali teasing some cosmic riffs that recall Jimi Hendrix's “Third Stone From the Sun”.
7 Walkers aren't just a Grateful Dead cover band though. The group has been working with longtime Dead lyricist Robert Hunter on some new tunes with a forward creative momentum in mind. “Evangeline” is the first new tune of the night, an elegant ballad that sounds sort of like a cross between Dead ballads “Black Peter” or “Stella Blue” with Rolling Stones ballads “Moonlight Mile” or “Memory Motel.” Kreutzmann uses mallets for a deft touch, while Mali sings of a gal “Who can make the rain clouds open up and pour / She can make the lightnin’ flash, make the thunder roar.” The song probably wouldn't have gone over so well in a downpour, but now that it's dry and balmy it sounds great.
The energy level soon shoots back toward the stars with “Turn on Your Lovelight”, the Bobby Blue Bland number that became one of the oldest classics in the Dead's repertoire. Kreutzmann swings the rhythm just like he has for decades, clearly loving every minute of it and not missing a beat, while Hubbard delivers the classic organ lines that make the whole crowd dance. Mali's soulful vocal delivery is actually far closer to that of the original Dead version from Pigpen McKernan than guitarist Bob Weir's renditions. Mali also delivers some great lead guitar work to drive the bluesy jam higher.
The new Hunter/Mali tune “New Orleans Crawl” follows, although it sounds suspiciously like the Dead's “Mississippi Half-Step”. It's hard to believe that's a coincidence though, especially with those Southern states neighboring each other. Hubbard breaks out the trombone again to add some jazzy flair as Mali sings about getting down and dirty in the Crescent City. Another highlight comes with Mali's reading on the Dead's “Wharf Rat”, a tune he seems to really resonate with. The powerful jam soars, and then sparkles when Mali rips a cosmic-sounding guitar solo that sounds more like Jimi than Jerry.
The new “7 Walkers”, the band’s namesake, is another strong tune from the Mali/Hunter collaboration. It's got a funky mid-tempo beat that perhaps conjures what it might have sounded like if Jerry Garcia had grown up in New Orleans instead of San Francisco, with some great psychedelic interplay between Mali's wah-wah and slide guitar with Hubbard's electric piano. The groovy jam builds in superb fashion until it winds up segueing into “I Know You Rider”, which launches the crowd into a dance frenzy. Kreutzmann's propulsive drumming over the tune's classic bouncy groove is a treat. Houser delivers a great piano solo after the first verse and then Mali rips up a sensational slide guitar solo after the second verse, putting a great new spin on an old classic to end the show in stylish fashion.
A “Sugaree” encore pleases the crowd once more, sending everyone away content. Shortly thereafter, Kreutzmann and Mali are sighted sitting at the side of the main stage enjoying the evening's final set, from the Lee Boys and Traveling McCourys. The two bands' mix of “bluegrass and sacred steel” was a big winner at last year's Old Settler's Festival, earning them an encore performance as a headliner this year. Kreutzmann is clearly delighted at the sound as he rocks out slapping his hands on his knees, and intermittently chatting enthusiastically with Mali. It's inspiring to see a legendary rock warrior from the '60s still able to take delight in fresh new sounds from 2010. Perhaps this is the key to musical longevity – retaining a fan's fervor for great music despite the fact that you've played countless shows to countless fans over four decades and counting.