Photos by Rob Chapman
Tuesday, May 31st, 2011… Note the date. In Williamsburg Brooklyn the hipster capital of the universe, the hippies out number the hipsters. With tie-dyed shirts, flowing sun dresses and Grateful Dead insignia galore, the deadicated stormed into the Brooklyn Bowl as the 7 Walkers rolled into town.
With a pre-show huddle towards the back of the stage, 7 Walkers came out to a rousing ovation before taking up their instruments. However, there was something noticeably different yet exciting about the line up tonight. Replacing Goerge Porter Jr. on the low end was Kirk Joseph of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band playing the sousaphone, the marching bands equivalent of the tuba; it was also known that there would be additional guests sitting in through out the night.
The first notes to fill the air developed into a slow rather spacey jam with plenty of noodling. Matt Hubbard wasted no time and promptly grabbed his melodica, a wind blown keyboard, which added a unique texture to the number. Kirk Joseph let his presence be known right off the bat as if he was assuring everyone that yes, he is fully capable of holding down George Porter Jr.’s role; after all, Kirk Joseph is a legend in his own right. A classic New Orleans sway provided the foundation for “King Cotton Blues,” an original 7 Walkers tune with the lyrics being written by Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter as is the case with many of the songs on the bands debut album. Living up to his well deserved reputation as a distinguished multi-instrumentalist, at one point Matt Hubbard was playing harmonica and the keys simultaneously before taking up the trombone for a wailing solo at the songs end. Accustomed to playing good ol’ New Orleans music with the Dirty Dozen Brass Band for over 30 years, it was easy to see how at home Kirk Joseph felt as he danced around while playing throughout the tune.
Papa Mali began the next piece by playing an iconic guitar line, the opening notes roused the crowd as they were indeed ready to sing that sweet “Bird Song.” The bands take on “Bird Song” is just one example of how the 7 Walkers differ from some of the other groups that have come about after the core members of the Grateful Dead hit the road with new projects. Papa Mali has a distinct voicing and style of play that lends itself to more of a bluesy bayou sound and as a result “Bird Song” takes a different form with Bill Kreutzmann’s new band. Kreutzmann found that perfect spot on the edge of recklessness and perfection as he has so many times during his career, and the dancing never stopped. Up next was a roaring cover of the Grateful Dead’s “Big Railroad Blues” that was absolutely hot. The band was firing on all cylinders but the stand out player was Matt Hubbard as he just wailed away on the keys. Bringing the tempo down to a nice soft sway the next piece was the absolutely beautiful 7 Walkers original “Evangeline”. Kreutzmann really showed off how versatile he is by playing a soft steady beat with perfectly timed cymbal work that weaved in and out of Papa Mail’s gorgeous vocal line and minimalist guitar work; sometimes less is truly more.
Guided to his seat by an assistant, Henry “the Pride of New Orleans” Butler, (as penned by Dr. John) sat in for another original off the 7 Walkers self titled debut album called “New Orleans Crawl.” With such command over the keys one would never expect to learn that Henry Butler was blind since birth but due to the effects of glaucoma this is the case. With keyboard duties in fine hands Matt Hubbard jumped on trombone for the entire song and was accompanied Satoru Ohashi on trumpet. Using a plastic cup for a mute, Satoru Ohashi manipulated the sounds of his trumpet in a way that not many can. As the name suggests, this was a classic New Orleans song with the squealing horns, rolling keyboard and all kinds of dancing going down in the crowd.
The next run of songs built up momentum and didn’t let down until the night came to a close. With flawless guitar runs and great vocal delivery on Papa Mali’s behalf, “Wharf Rat” had Billy K smiling harder than anyone in the audience as he worked the set left to right and up and down. The groups take on the Bob Dylan tune “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” once again showed how they refuse to play covers straight up like the original, but prefer to rework them and keep things fresh. “Mr. Charlie” came next and was funky as can be thanks in part to Kirk Joseph laying down some hopping lines on the sousaphone. Kirk surely did “hear the drums” and it was clear that he kept feeding off of Bill Kreutzmann through out the song while Papa Mali played some killer voodoo funk guitar. Keeping with the Orleans voodoo theme Henry Butler was brought back out for a take on “I Walk on Guilded Splinters.” The tune featured guest singer Tami Lynn who has a history with the Rolling Stones and “Guilded Splinters” author Dr. John among others. Possessing quite the range, Tami sang above and below Papa Mali with such a soulful sultry voice it could stop you in your tracks. The tune saw Matt Hubbard take up harmonica once again as it filled the space around the sparse guitar licks of Papa Mali.
With yet another guest in store, Tami Lynn headed off the stage and made way for none other than extended Grateful Dead family member Joan Osborne to tackle a ripping version of “Turn on Your Love Light.” With the blaring horns belting out the main riff and Billy raging on the kit, Papa Mali and Joan Osborne sang lead on alternating verses ultimately going off into a call and response type of section assuring each other that everything’s “gonna be alright.” Staying on stage with the boys Joan sang the lead on “New Speedway Boogie” as Papa Mali tore it up with some nasty low down swampy blues guitar riffs and a killer solo as the tune opened up a bit. As the evening grew to a close and it was announced that the last song was about to be played the crowd began demanding more. Since playing more than one last song wasn’t going to be an option the band, with Joan still set to sing lead, busted out “Sugaree.” As her gorgeous voice called out for some shakin’, everyone left in attendance obliged. With the crowd swaying like one big tie-dyed tapestry holding hands and belting out the chorus, Papa Mali figured he would heat things up one last time. Throwing just about everything he had into the last riffs and lines he would play for the night, Papa enticed Joan into a game of copycat. As he fired off some of the nastiest guitar licks of the night, Joan wasted no time immediately mimicking each and every one.
Like they always have and always will, the Grateful Dead faithful strolled into a random neighborhood temporarily altering the present demographic. Though the numbers may be smaller these days the love for the music and the camaraderie is something that will continue to grow. When songs that were made over 50 years ago continue to inspire musicians, fans and scholars, alike you have come across something that is more than just a band; you have come across an American institution.