Fifteen years after the death of erstwhile leader and cosmic
guru Jerry Garcia, the Grateful Dead ethos still survives, in the fervor of their
fans and the Dead’s unwillingness to give up the ghost – either Garcia’s or
their own. Aside from their various reincarnations as the Dead (sans the Grateful) and Furthur, its
alumni remain active and involved as individual entities. So even though the revered
Captain Trips has long since departed this earthly plain, the Grateful Dead
branding remains as potent as ever, in both spirit and substance.
That said, 7 Walkers might be the effort that veers furthest
from the band’s traditional template. It also represents drummer and founding
member Bill Kreutzmann’s first definitive move outside the Dead’s axis,
although he maintains his comfort zone by partnering in the project with
longtime Dead lyricist Robert Hunter. Truth is, with such disparate players as
guitarist Papa Mali, veteran
bassist George Porter Jr. and instrumental multi-tasker Matt Hubbard on board,
it’s only Hunter’s evocative lyrics – drawing as always on fanciful Americana imagery — that
find any connection within the Dead domain.
By and large though, this is an album inspired by the swampy
soul of New Orleans, from the strut and shuffle of its dusty rhythms to Mali’s
creaky, whiskey-soaked vocals. It boasts more than a hint of festive funk in
the Meters-like instrumental “(For the Love of) Mr. Okra,” the odd, off-kilter
ramble “Chingo,” and the brassy revelry of “New Orleans Crawl,” but it’s an
eerie ambiance and elusive aura that dominate the Bayou blues of “Louisiana
Rain” and “Evangeline.” Recalling the native sounds of the Band, Little Feat,
J.J. Cale and, of course, a host of Crescent
City standbys, this
eponymous debut manages to stir up a sound that’s both assertive and alluring.
Willie Nelson’s cameo on “King Cotton Blues” adds to the aw-shucks sensibility,
but ultimately it’s their signature song “7 Walkers” that asserts their
authority. An impressive introduction, 7
Walkers suggests the band’s already hit its stride.
Walkers,” “King Cotton Blues,” “Evangeline” LEE ZIMMERMAN