Growing up in Shreveport, Louisiana, a young Malcolm Welbourne spent his summers and school vacations at his grandparents’, soaking up the sights and sounds of the Crescent City. Akin to another famous Malcolm from around here—Malcolm John Rebennack Jr.—Welbourne’s mysterious musical persona, Papa Mali has since etched his name into its lore. Like Dr. John’s Night Tripper character, Papa Mali’s whereabouts are often unknown, yet stories from his wild jam sessions reach mythic proportions as they travel through the late-night concert crowds.
Today, the man known for strolling into clubs after midnight, guitar in tow, with snakelike dreads hanging out of his cowboy hat, is making the rounds with his current outfit the 7 Walkers, a collaboration between he and Grateful Dead drummer Billy Kreutzmann that also features multi-instrumentalist Matt Hubbard and legendary Meters bassist George Porter Jr. OffBeat caught up with Papa Mali on his way down to Jazz Fest, where he can be seen celebrating the Day of the Dead Grateful Dead tribute at the Rusty Nail tonight and again with the 7 Walkers at the Scottish Rite Temple on Saturday.
Tell me about the formation of the 7 Walkers. Did you know Bill Kreutzmann beforehand?
He and I met very randomly almost 3 years ago. I was performing with my band at the Oregon Country Fair. Billy’s girlfriend, who is from New Orleans and was a fan of mine, had turned him on to my CD, and the two of them came to see me perform. I first met Billy backstage after the gig. I just thought he was some really nice dude. We really hit it off. It was like we were old friends. It took me a minute to recognize him—not being a major Deadhead, I hadn’t seen a picture of him in years.
So how long did it take for you guys to play together?
We ended up throwing together an impromptu jam session before the weekend was over. We hung out together that whole weekend, and towards the end, we talked to the people at the festival and asked if we could set up a jam. Then, the next thing we knew, there were golf carts coming to pick us up, and we were standing on a stage full of equipment ready to play.
And then how long did it take for you guys to decide to put a band together?
Billy and I stayed in touch after that weekend. He had recently put together the Billy Kreutzmann Trio (BK3) with the bass player from the Allman Brothers, Oteil Burbridge, and Scott Murawski, who plays guitar and sings in [Phish bassist] Mike Gordon’s band. Then I went out on the road, and he sat in on a few of my gigs. We did about a half-dozen shows like that—as the Papa Mali Band featuring Billy Kreutzmann. It didn’t get really serious until Bill asked me if I wanted to start writing songs with [Grateful Dead lyricist] Robert Hunter.
So where did things go from there? What was the songwriting process like?
A lot of it had to do with Bill trusting me enough to introduce me to Robert, and then Robert trusting me enough to put music to his lyrics. It turned out that Hunter was very deep into Louisiana music, and then he got into my music and found a connection between the two. Immediately, it dawned on me that all of the lyrics he was sending me were about very detailed places and specific things about Louisiana culture that you almost had to live in Louisiana to know about.
From the time you spent with your family here, growing up, what were some of your earliest experiences with New Orleans music?
Well, my very first experience of seeing a professional, live band of any kind was seeing the Meters on Mardi Gras day in 1969. I was 12 years old. Me and my cousin were running around with the parades. At one point, we got separated for a little while. Then I saw from a distance the Meters playing on the back of a flatbed truck. Leo [Nocentelli] had this huge afro and was wearing a psychedelic scarf around his head. I thought he was Jimi Hendrix. So I ran up to see what was going on. There were some Mardi Gras Indians on the scene. I had never seen them before either. It was something else. Ironically, now, George Porter, Jr. is in the 7 Walkers.
I heard you were the guy who brought him into the band. When did you first start playing with George?
I’ve known George for about seven or eight years from sitting in with PBS (Porter Batiste Stoltz). We’d seen each other play before that. About two years ago, George and I had done some gigs around Mardi Gras. He mentioned something about having a little bit of time off, which is very rare for him. It just so happened that our regular bass player (Reed Mathis of Tea Leaf Green) wasn’t going to be able to come on an upcoming 7 Walkers tour. So I asked George if he’d be interested in the gig. I asked him if he’d ever played with Bill, and he said, “No, but I’ve played with Mickey Hart.” On tour, it turned out better than anyone imagined it would. George and Billy got along great. George has a way of bringing out the best in everyone that he plays with. Billy’s a fantastic drummer, and in this case, he really brought out the best in George.
So tell me about the other face in the band, Matt Hubbard.
There’s no underestimating how important Matt is to the 7 Walkers. He’s amazing. When we play in a city for the first time, people have definitely heard of Bill; most of them have heard of George; a few tend to be familiar with me, but not very many are familiar with Matt. So it’s always great to watch their reaction to him—because over and over again he blows them away.
Well, the 7 Walkers have definitely picked up a head of steam. Where’s the train going?
Hunter and I have already begun writing for the next record, and we are hoping to get in the studio very soon to begin working on it. When our [debut] record came out back in November, we were just amazed at the response. None of us were really expecting it. Our crowds tripled overnight. We went from playing clubs to playing theatres.
I hear this late night Jazz Fest show is going to be a big birthday party…
Yeah, it’s me and Bill’s birthdays. I was born on May 6th; he was born on May 7th. I can’t give too much away, but we’ve got a few surprises up our sleeves.