“Music Is Love,” the latest album by Malcolm Welbourne, aka Papa Mali, mostly consists of swampadelicized versions of songs by David Crosby, Randy Newman, Lead Belly, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Mississippi John Hurt and other famous artists.
When Welbourne performs songs he didn’t write, he said last week, he doesn’t do obvious selections by Crosby, Newman and others. Through his reshaping of well-known artists’ songs, Welbourne explained, he hopes people will be inspired to explore the lesser-known music in those artists’ catalogs.
Welbourne and the all-star local group with whom he recorded “Music Is Love” — including drummer Johnny Vidacovich and pedal steel guitarist Dave Easley — will play his album-release show Friday at Chickie Wah Wah.
Before production for the new Papa Mali album began, Welbourne and his New Orleans-based producer, John Chelew (a three-time Grammy-winner for Blind Boys of Alabama recordings), agreed that “Music Is Love,” the opening song on Crosby’s first solo album, would be the project’s touchstone.
“Everybody knows David Crosby from Crosby, Stills, & Nash, but maybe they didn’t experience that first solo like my friends and I did when we were 15 years old,” Welbourne said. “It seemed like a magic album to us.”
Although Welbourne usually reinvents songs, he and Chelew made an exception for “Music Is Love.”
“We did a reverential treatment of it,” he said.
For the album, Chelew also encouraged Welbourne to stay in the swampy-psychedelic mode of 7 Walkers, a band featuring Welbourne, Grateful Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann and Meters bassist George Porter Jr. The resulting album is seductively swampy.
Welbourne grew up in Shreveport, but frequently visited New Orleans, his mother’s hometown, during his childhood. The city’s indigenous music captivated him.
“I loved the Meters,” he said. “I heard Mardi Gras Indians music and brass band music. But I thought of that music as something a white kid like me, from the suburbs, could never do.”
A Dr. John concert Welbourne experienced in the early 1970s opened his eyes to another view.
“When I saw Dr. John, I thought, ‘Wow, maybe I can do that.’ ”
Dr. John, whose given name is also Malcolm, is among Papa Mali’s principal inspirations.
“From the very first note of the ‘Gris-Gris’ album, I like everything he’s done,” Welbourne said. “Anybody who hears me is going to hear some Dr. John vibe. In the past six or seven years, I got to know him. He’s been very supportive of me and my music. That means a lot.”
The late singer-guitarist John Campbell, a fearsome blues artist from Shreveport who died at 41 in 1993, is another of Welbourne’s major inspirations. When the future Papa Mali was 14, Campbell served as his mentor.
“John Campbell taught me to listen for the grit beneath the surface of the blues,” Welbourne said. “He taught me that there is something deep and heartfelt that transcends genres. Musicians work at becoming good enough to channel something ancient and mysterious. You become a vessel for something that already exists in the ether. And that’s really the best you can hope for.”
Welbourne and his wife moved to New Orleans four years ago, following 26 years in Austin. Despite his long history with New Orleans and his belief that it’s always been his true home, he knows he’s still a newcomer. Living in New Orleans, he said, “it’s a commitment. Ain’t nothing easy about the Big Easy. People who live here, the reason they love it so much, is because they’ve earned it.”