Road warriors 

Papa Mali and the swamp-funk continuum

A hearty laugh opens Thunder Chicken, a sound emanating from deep in the belly of lead singer Malcolm “Papa Mali” Welbourne. Throughout the album, which Welbourne describes as “Louisiana swamp funk and soul with slide guitar,” his unmistakable cackle reappears, signifying that, if anything, Welbourne and his band, Papa Mali, are intent on having—and providing—a good time.

“We’ve played probably 250 dates in the last year,” says Welbourne, traveling to yet another gig, the last of a stretch opening for fellow New Orleans jam band Galactic. “We’re out there most of the week, every week, playing for people in bars, and it’s hard not to have fun with the type of music we play. That’s why people are there—and we get right down into it with them.”

Welbourne’s style combines his bluesy Shreveport, La., roots with an appreciation for the party atmosphere of his home state’s Mardi Gras jams. Chicken, his band’s only album, follows the initial laugh with a muddy romp of bottleneck slide, twanged funk reverb and a clinkity-clankity cowbell punch. Originally released in 2000 and then re-released last year, Thunder Chicken also applies Welbourne’s rumbling style to lofty covers such as Dr. John’s “Walk on Guilded Splinters” and Buddy Guy’s “Man of Many Words.”

But the grassroots sound of the album is only half the story—it’s telling that Welbourne’s promoters also distribute a 30-minute CD of the band’s blistering live set.

Despite being on the road almost nonstop for two years, Welbourne and his band—currently including Jim Bowheart on bass and Nick Summers on drums—are making their first trip to Montana. Their four dates in the state are a chance for the three to work through some of their newest songs, expected to be a part of a new album released in the fall.

“It’s almost complete and I feel good about it,” says Welbourne. “We’ve been playing some of the new stuff on tour—just to get some reaction—and it’s been really positive. The atmosphere is still really high, and you know people are having a good time. That’s what it’s about.”

Papa Mali plays The Other Side Friday, July 29, at 10 PM. $7, or $9 for under 21.

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