While classic rock fans attending last year's Austin City Limits Festival might have had their ears firmly focused on Levon Helm, former drummer for the Band, Austin-based soul/bluesman Papa Mali showed up for his set with another storied drummer Bill Kreutzmann, co-founder of the Grateful Dead. A week later, he surfaced again, this time at the much smaller venue, the Saxon Pub.
It turns out that Kreutzmann wasn't just in town for a couple guest appearances. He was in the studio, recording an album with a new band, 7 Walkers, consisting of Papa Mali, Kreutzmann, bassist Reed Mathis of popular San Francisco jam band Tea Leaf Green, and keyboardist Matt Hubbard, whose production credits include Willie Nelson. To add another level of musical cred that is bound to excite any Deadhead, the album, which doesn't yet have a release date, features songs with lyrics penned by Grateful Dead and recent Bob Dylan collaborator Robert Hunter.
This weekend, 7 Walkers makes its way back to Central Texas to headline the Old Settler's Music Festival, part of a tour that began April 6 in California and will wind up in New Orleans after several dates throughout the South (bassist George Porter Jr. will fill in for Mathis).
"The last few years in general have been pretty amazing," Papa Mali, whose real name is Malcolm Welbourne, said over coffee last week. "But working with Bill and writing with Robert Hunter is by far the most satisfying thing I've done ever, without a doubt."
That's saying a lot. Welbourne, 53, grew up in Shreveport, La., and played blues guitar in New Orleans during the 1970s. In the '80s he made a name for himself as part of the Killer Bees, a reggae band that attracted the attention of heavy hitters such as Burning Spear, who gave Welbourne his Papa Mali moniker.
The music of the Grateful Dead is a bit of a departure for Welbourne, who moved to Austin in 1984. His recent solo albums, including 2000's "Thunder Chicken" and 2007's "Do Your Thing," lean toward New Orleans-influenced blues and funk, but he says that he was a fan in his youth. "In Shreveport I was the only freaky hippie guy in '71 or '72," he said. "The Dead scene didn't really exist there; we had to live vicariously by reading about it in Rolling Stone."
Welbourne's Louisiana roots were part of what originally interested Kreutzmann. "My mom was born there, and I've never really gotten to play that kind of music before, and always loved it and wanted to play it," Kreutzmann said by phone from his home in Hawaii. "So this is really a dream come true."
Kreutzmann, who moved to Hawaii in 1996 after the death of Grateful Dead lead guitarist Jerry Garcia, hasn't kept as high a profile as former bandmates Phil Lesh, Mickey Hart and Bob Weir. He has performed more in recent years, including a tour last year with Lesh, Hart and Weir as the Dead.
He saw Welbourne perform in 2008 at the Oregon state fair and introduced himself after the set. The two hit it off, talking for hours. "I walked off stage and wasn't expecting it, and I didn't instantly recognize him," Welbourne said of their first meeting. "He was just so friendly right off the bat, it was easy."
The two musicians began performing together, including a New Year's Eve performance in Hawaii. Hearing them tell it, they complement one another perfectly. "Those guys are just so inventive," Kreutzmann says of the rest of the band.
"As a guitarist, anything I play he's going to mirror it back to me and push me to go further," Welbourne says of Kreutzmann. "Playing with him has just been a joy."
Though they cover Grateful Dead songs including "Bertha," "Deal" and "Mr. Charlie," both emphasize that 7 Walkers is not a Grateful Dead cover band. "I don't really want to relive the Dead; that's great music and wonderful times, but I like to be in the now," Kreutzmann said.
And though casual listeners who hear the band jam their way through Dead standards such as "I Know You Rider" might beg to differ, Welbourne's Southern drawl and the band's New Orleans funk bring a shuffle and feel to the music that differentiates it from the storied jam outfit. He does admit, though, to feeling a certain pressure not to put too much of his own stamp on the Dead songs.
There is also the matter of 7 Walkers' other direct connection to the Grateful Dead: Robert Hunter. Kreutzmann, who has continued working with Hunter on other projects, suggested that he pen lyrics for Welbourne to put to music. The prolific Hunter, who co-wrote the songs on Bob Dylan's most recent album, "Together Through Life," sent Welbourne some lyrics via e-mail in the beginning of last year. "It was just lyrics, no instructions, no personal note at all," Welbourne said. "I said to my wife, 'This is like me getting a letter from Bob Dylan — this just doesn't happen every day.' "
Welbourne and Hubbard put together a demo of the song at Willie Nelson's Pedernales Studios and sent it to Kreutzmann. "I was so nervous when I sent Bill the demo, and I didn't hear anything back for almost a week, and thought 'they hate it,'" he said. "What happened was Bill had misplaced the CD, and finally I get this letter about a week and half later that said 'Hunter really likes it,' and it made me feel so good."
Though the lyrics are distinctly Hunter's, they are by no means Grateful Dead songs written for Papa Mali. In fact, Hunter, whose lyrics for the Grateful Dead were thick with Americana, focused much of the 7 Walkers material on the culture of New Orleans and Louisiana. The songs are rich with references to specific bayous and other points of interest, which Welbourne says are well-researched. "One of the first questions I asked him was 'Did you live in Louisiana? Because your references about places and things and historical events are so on point. Most locals don't know that much about Louisiana,' " he said.
While the album is still in its mixing stages, the most Dead-sounding of the bunch happens to be the one from which the band took its name. "7 Walkers" is a bluesy, mid-tempo spiritual about searching for a higher calling, which both Kreutzmann and Welbourne said fit the band.
The feel of the song captures how the band is approaching the project. "Playing with other musicians and making other people happy is a goal in my life, that's what we do it for," Kreutzmann said.
UPDATE: As originally published on Tuesday's Life & Arts cover, the tease to this story gave incorrect ticket costs for the Old Settler's Music Festival. Prices range from $25 for a Sunday-only wristband to $450 for a platinum pass.