Malcolm Welbourne, the godfather of the Austin reggae scene, assumes a new musical persona with the release of Thunder Chicken, a satisfyingly swamp-saturated tribute to the bayou beat. Welbourne is best known for his role as co-leader of the Killer Bees but he's also performed in an intriguing assortment of other musical contexts, including everything from acoustic swing to third world blues. As Papa Mali he reverts to his Louisiana upbringing, slipping comfortably into funk-flavored roots music while proving that, while you can take the boy out of Shreveport, you can't take the swamp blues out of the boy.
The first three songs pretty much stake out the stylistic parameters of Papa Mali's musical universe as a percolating, percussion-driven rendition of Zydeco legend Clifton Chenier's "Bon Ton Roulet" leads into a jazzy, groove-oriented take on bluesman Buddy Guy's "Man Of Many Words". An extended exploration of Dr. John's masterpiece of cosmic swamp psychedelia, "Walk On Guilded Splinters", completes the trilogy and if your head isn't full of visions of Creole queens and wonderfully wasted nights in the Big Easy by that time then it's possible the hole in your soul is affecting your ears.
As in most things relating to the bayou beat the drums are critical and the indominable Barry "Frosty" Smith, reinforced by percussionists Bevis Griffin and Paul Mills, keeps the foundation flexible with elastic energy that polyrhytmically pushes and pulls the music ever onward. On tunes like The Wild Magnolias' "Fire Water" the rhythm section, which also includes bassist Courtney Audain, moves up front and center, transforming the music into an enlightened and irresistable rhythm rave-up that the Meters would be proud to claim.
In past live action the band came across as an Austin echo of the Neville Brothers but "Thunder Chicken", deeper, darker and more diverse, uses Welbourne's charismatic Papa Mali creation to personalize the sound with distinctive down-home blues stylings, especially on the closing cuts. Welbourne's swamp trance vocals and the uniformly excellent musicianship of all involved create a strong and successful debut for an act with admirable experience and unlimited potential.
- michael point
Check out Papa Mali's website at http://www.fogworld.com/pmi for more info on the band and their tour schedule. You can also listen to their entire album online, in stereo and for free!