Malcolm "Papa Mali" Welbourne has lived in Austin, Texas, for 18 years, has traveled extensively through Jamaica and New Zealand, and was the co-leader of the acclaimed reggae band the Killer Bees. He's also the unlikely brainchild behind 1999's Thunder Chicken, a quasi-psychedelic hardcore funk album reminiscent of Dr. John's Gris-Gris and In the Right Place -- and one of the best New Orleans funk and swamp-rock records in recent memory.
"After playing reggae for so many years, I wanted to make this record as a love letter to my childhood," says Shreveport native Welbourne, via phone from Austin. "My mother's family lived in New Orleans, and when the train still ran from Shreveport to New Orleans, every year we'd take the train in for Mardi Gras. Back in those days, my cousin and I were allowed to ride our bikes all over the city, and no one gave it a second thought. I was exposed to good music, the carnival vibe, the African elements of the city -- I wouldn't be who I am today without that experience."
Welbourne's New Orleans adventures aren't the only Louisiana signposts permeating Thunder Chicken (Fog City Records). Welbourne's primary inspiration on guitar was acclaimed Shreveport gris-gris bluesman John Campbell -- who died less than two months after his headline appearance at the 1993 Jazz Fest -- and the album is packed with judicious layers of slide guitar playing, from the rising accents on a funked-up version of Clifton Chenier's "Bon Ton Roulet" to the murky bottom-of-the-bayou lead on "Get Happy."
"John was my mentor and teacher," says Welbourne. "When I was just 12 or 13 years old, he took me under his wing, and said, 'I think you could benefit from listening to these old blues records.' He heard me playing along with an Allmans record one day, and then turned me on to the real classic blues stuff, and started giving me lessons. He showed me how to play bottleneck [slide]. More than anyone else, he was an inspiration."
While Campbell was Welbourne's guide to African-rooted blues traditions, it was Welbourne's wanderlust that opened his eyes and ears to Caribbean sounds. "As soon as I turned 17, I took off hitchhiking all over the place, and then I went to Jamaica in '76," says Welbourne. "I was playing music professionally at that point and getting gigs, but I didn't anything about reggae. I was in Jamaica for three weeks, and I had an experience. The best reggae music made was during that time, in my opinion, with all the harmony groups, all the dub records. I came back a changed person, and knew I needed to explore that further."
The idea of a reggae band in north Louisiana in the mid-70s was somewhat radical. "I called Michael Johnson and said, 'We've got to start a reggae band,'" Welbourne remembers. "Michael said, 'It'll never work,' and paused and grinned, 'in Shreveport.'"
Johnson and Welbourne packed up and moved to Austin, forming the Killer Bees. The band landed record deals and became an internationally respected reggae band (Cyril Neville sang the title track of the band's second album), and in 1987 earned the honor of becoming the first American band to play at the Reggae Sunsplash Festival in Montego Bay. "We were together 20 years," says Welbourne. "Michael was my best friend." Johnson passed away earlier this year after recurring health problems.
Welbourne hasn't ruled out a return to reggae, but he's hit an artistic high mark with Thunder Chicken. The cover selection -- including Dr. John's "Walk on Gilded Splinters," the Wild Magnolias "Fire Water" and Buddy Guy's "Man of Many Words" -- shows big cojones, and Welbourne pulls them all off with a concoction of dripping guitar reverb and wah-wah pedal flashes, funky clavinet, waves of trap-drum percussion and slurred, singing-from-the-side of the mouth vocals dripping with grease. The album's engine is drum legend Barry "Frosty" Smith, who channels decades of experience playing with everyone from Sly Stone to Dr. John, turning the shuffle "If I Ever Get Right" inside out into a gloriously off-kilter stumble, and making Welbourne's original "I'm the One" into a soul march.
The band's performance this week at Tipitina's is Welbourne's first headline appearance here since the album's release -- and Welbourne's understandably happy to be coming back to town. "I still have family in New Orleans, I met my wife in New Orleans, I got married at the Columns and the Dirty Dozen played my wedding," he says. "There's always been that connection for me. And there's no denying that New Orleans music has had a huge influence in my life."