Jerry Garcia departed 15 years ago, but for the remaining members of the Grateful Dead, the long, strange trip has yet to end. Numerous associated acts have appeared since the 1995 disbanding. The remaining members even reformed as The Dead, performing as recently as 2009.
The most recent Grateful Dead spin-off is 7 Walkers, featuring Bill Kreutzmann, who played drums with GD for the entirety of their 30-year career. With Papa Mali on the mic and guitar and multi-instrumentalist Matt Hubbard and other supporting musicians, 7 Walkers released its self-titled debut album in November.
"7 Walkers," according to the group, is "an open love letter to city of New Orleans." Thank goodness they didn't keep it to themselves, because "7 Walkers" is a fantastic ode to the Big Easy.
The affinity for Lousiana comes easy, as Papa Mali spent most of his life in the state. Some of Bill Kreutzmann's family also hails from the area. George Porter Jr., who appears on "Chingo!", is a member of funk band The Meters, which is well-known in New Orleans.
"7 Walkers" could very well be a statement about the current state of New Orleans. The album is comparable to the "jazz funerals" that take place in New Orleans. Sad music is played on the way to the funeral, but a celebration of happier music follows the ceremony.
The funeral march of the album is "King Cotton Blues." It acknowledges that after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans represents death, darkness and depression. Willie Nelson guests on the song, lamenting about various death implements.
New Orleans suffered a fatal blow in 2005, but 7 Walkers refuse to accept the prognosis. Though they are hoping to contribute to revival of the city, "7 Walkers" is no Mardi Gras.
"Out of the dark sky and into the light," sings Mali on "Someday You'll See." The luster of "7 Walkers" comes not through excessive celebration; the group more appropriately chooses a subdued exaltation to a city still enduring tremendous suffering.
Papa Mali's gravelly voice reflects the material perfectly. Like New Orleans, he comes across as bruised and battered, yet he sings with deep pride, despite tragedy.
Another member of the Grateful Dead had a hand in "7 Walkers," providing the lyrics for all but one song. Robert Hunter wrote some of the Dead's most notable songs, from "Truckin'" to "Friend of the Devil."
The Mali/Hunter collaboration is golden. "Evangeline" will be of the most beautiful songs to grace an ear this year. Hunter's words and Mali's singing the Bayou love profession would make any woman want to be the namesake of the song.
Hunter is from California, but his writing ability passes the test, assuming Louisiana and its qualities throughout "7 Walkers." His portrayal is exceptionally on the mark for someone who hasn't lived in the state.
There is no way to pay tribute to New Orleans without emulating the sounds of the area. 7 Walkers dutifully take on the challenge with voodoo-ish percussion, blues guitar, harmonica and jazzy horns.
The ambient noise and atmospheric sounds on "7 Walkers" are also big contributors to the overall feel. Little things like the rain in "Lousiana Rain" add even more detail to the picture already created by the words and music.
No doubt, Bill Kruetzmann and Robert Hunter picked a project worthy of themselves in 7 Walkers. The band deserves the Deadhead seal of approval.
"7 Walkers" is representative of the cultural richness of New Orleans. 7 Walkers prove it is city is worth saving. Hopefully, listeners will come away from the album with that sentiment, as well.
7 Walkers are online at http://www.7walkers.com.