Buster’s Billiards & Backroom
March 31, 2011
Rolling, insistent drumbeats, pulsating basslines, organ teases, and vocals sang with that distinctive Louisiana drawl – these things speak directly to the 7 Walkers’ New Orleans heritage. The instant credibility that its players (George Porter Jr, Bill Kreutzmann, Papa Mali and Matt Hubbard) possess from their esteemed pedigrees assures that something amazing will happen on any stage that this band calls theirs on any given night. So was the case on April Fool’s eve in Lexington, Kentucky -Â home to horses, wildcats and Buster’s Billiards.
The profound effect that Bill Kreutzmann and George Porter Jr. have had on their respective genres is impossible to chart. Combining their talents is what makes the 7 Walkers a band not to be missed.
Kreutzmann, one of the longest tenured members of the Grateful Dead and its various incarnations, was a part of a band whose legacy has done nothing but grow year after year.Â His skill on the drums has been honed by endless nights on countless tours, where he played for hours on end. As a result, his timing and intuitive chops have been sharpened to a point that few could ever fathom attaining.
Porter Jr., as the bassist for the legendary funk ensemble, The Meters, forged a style of bass and music itself by exploring a frontier of playing not just with soul, but with a down and dirty nastiness that is both thick and potent.
Adding to this dynamic duo is Papa Mali, whose signature guitar style of swampy, chord-laden psychedelia has made him an in-demand player, both with his own band and in supergroups such as the Walkers.
Rounding out the quartet is multi-instrumentalist Matt Hubbard, whose skill on keyboards and wind instruments makes him a powerful and versatile component of the band, allowing them a far greater dynamic in their sound than any two other players.
All talent aside though, what makes 7 Walkers a special entity is not each member’s past catalogue. While Dead numbers were scattered in the Lexington set, this is no cover band. Rather, this is a group of players armed with a clutch of original songs lyrically penned by Robert Hunter, the man responsible for a slew of Grateful Dead gems including “Cumberland Blues” and “Eyes of the World.” From Hunter’s poetic ability and Mali’s music writing aptitude sprang forth something that should never be missed. Apparently this message was received, as Buster’s was packed with folks anxious to see this legend-filled ensemble.
Buster’s Billiards is a former warehouse in Lexington’s distillery district. The venue does in fact have pool tables, and the concert hall is a spacious area in the back, with many vantage points to view the band, including an elevated deck. With no residential neighbors in the vicinity, the music can fill the rafters, and in spite of its former state, it possesses a rare uniformity of sound quality throughout.
With no opening act, the crowd was primed for two long sets of classics and originals, and the band was on the same page. Opening with a space-jam/noodling session, the band segued into a pair of songs, “King Cotton Blues” and “Hey Bo Diddle” from their recent debut album, the eponymous 7 Walkers. “Blues” was vocally drenched by Papa Mali’s bayou-esque voice, while “Hey Bo Diddle” featured the raw, scratchy vocals of the ever soulful Porter, which served as the perfect counterpoint to the crispiness that the band was laying down musically.
Wanting to close the set with as much energy as possible, the classic “Iko Iko” was laid out in all of its pop-and-snap glory. A funk standard that has been played throughout the careers of the two most notable bands, the Meters and the Dead, it was a tale of tribes at odds. However, collectively as 7 Walkers, one could never tell that the song had been celebrated so differently by two of its players. It was a perfect finale for the set and left the crowd howling for more.
Returning to the stage, the band wasted no time in reigniting the fire they had left smoldering, launching into a golden moment with a crunchy and beyond the pale rendition of “Sugaree.” The number that is known by most has been reworked and possessed a back funk vibe that rose before falling in love to the tune of Porter’s raspy vocals that carried a wise sentimentality to the lyrics and made the song meaning more bittersweet than traditional renditions.
Revving the crowd back up with the R & B classic “Turn on your Lovelight,” the band settled into a fat groove and hung there through “Louisiana Rain” and “New Speedway Boogie.”
Papa Mali forged a reputation out of raw sounds and heartfelt vocals. Both were on full display throughout the night. Mali would hang back to let his band mates get their licks in, but when it was his time, he mixed lead lines with slinky chords to wonderful effect. Meanwhile, Hubbard alternately played his keyboards, trombone and harmonica with the same aplomb, filling every nook and cranny of the songs and venue with unexpected lushness. New original “Chingo!” featured some interesting percussive moments, and it was followed by the crowd favorite Dead classic, “Eyes of the World,” that was given new life by Porter’s vocals.
The big names on the bill lived up to their reputations, laying down rhythm as thick as tar. The group is nothing short of inspired, and their sound gave one the notion that this was something that has always been meant to go together.
The crowd danced until the last notes of the evening’s second set, the band delivering a backbone of goodness laid down by two musical giants. In the end it was clear that 7 Walkers, a band that shares both the mic and the stage, is far more than the sum of its parts.
Their theme song, “7 Walkers,” closed the night, fittingly showcasing each player in turn before flowing into a jam that featured the four playing as one. A decidedly energetic reading of “Wharf Rat” filled the bill as the encore, and left the crowd cheerfully calling for more. Ever the statesmen, after a cool-down period, the whole band came out and chatted up the audience at the merchandise table. They signed autographs and made the day of many of the fans who had their lives changed by music made, not just in the past, but on this very evening.
Setlist (courtesy of George Porter, Jr.)
I: Space, King Cotton Blues, Hey Bo Diddle, Just Kissed My Baby, Heâ€™s Gone, Tom Thumb Blues, Iko Iko
II: Sugaree, Love Light, Louisiana Rain, New Speedway Boogie, Mr. Okra, Chingo!, Eyes Of The World, Death Donâ€™t Have No Mercy >7 Walkers
Encore: Bertha, Wharf Rat
For more photos from this show, log on to Rex-A-Vision
check out video footage from the evening’s “Sugaree” below…