"Thunder Chicken," apparently a brand of North Louisiana "extra-strong wine" that left a strong impression on bandleader Malcolm "Papa Mali" Welbourne's formative years - if this album's anything to go by, where can we get some?
Not just a fine slide guitarist with impressive funk rhythm chops, Welbourne's voice is a treat - maybe not big on range but plenty big on swampy soul, and he sings on the upbeat numbers with an audible smile. Perhaps the one criticism you could make of this release is that over one or two tracks the voice gets buried in studio effects, spoiling (at least to my
ears) the track Keep Happy.
Overall this album is grounded in the percolating beats of legendary drummer B.E. 'Frosty' Smith (Sly Stone, Lee Michaels, Dr John, lots more), who provides the polyrhythmic pushes and pulls which elevate this kind of music beyond your standard funk-blues workout. And Welbourne doesn't just give the drummer some - he gives him plenty - the fills and snaps on Buddy Guy's Man of Many Words are worth the price of the CD alone. Percussionist Paul "Buddha" Mills and Trinidadian bassist Courtney Audain complete the monster rhythm section, and add Saxophonist Tomas Ramirez and Claude McCan on keys you end up with prime blues and southern fried soul spiced with some tribal hoodoo rhythms.
Centerpiece to the album must be the atmospheric take on Dr John's old gris-gris number, Walk on Guilded Splinters, all ominous vocals and plenty of chanting. Other highlights are If I Ever Get Right, which effortlessly captures a N'awlins brass band feel over a Junko Partner second-line parade beat; the good time rhythms of Chenier's Bon Ton Roulet; and also the dark bayou funk in a take of the Wild Magnolias' Fire Water. It's finished off with a couple of tracks with Welbourne in solo acoustic mode - most notably
the modern take on gospel blues with Rational Mind - all going to prove that
Papa Mali does just fine with or without the heavyweight company he keeps.
And, if that's not enough, being on the eminently-cool Fog City label, by
putting this expanded-media CD into a computer you get bonus tracks and a
10-minute video for Guilded Splinters in the best noire b-movie style.
This review is copyright © 2001 by James Daniell, and Blues On Stage, all rights reserved. Copy, duplication or download prohibited without written permission. For permission to use this review please send an E-mail to Ray Stiles.
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