STILL KICKIN’: Gov’t Mule

Gov't Mule ©Anna Webber 2013

Warren Haynes & Co. embrace their influences by shouting to the past. The band kicks off a fresh round of touring next week, Feb. 6, in Columbia, SC.

BY TOM SPEED

On a warm September night in 1994, The Rolling Stones brought their Voodoo Lounge Tour to Liberty Bowl Stadium in Memphis. Afterwards, I made the short drive back to my home in Oxford, Miss. But I stopped along the way, on the county line separating Panola County from Lafayette County, at a new makeshift juke joint called The Turning Point. Not bound by the stringent curfew laws of the college town, The Turning Point was designed to stay open late and to draw the after-show crowds from Oxford. This night, Blues Traveler was playing at the big club in Oxford, but the after-show was a new band comprising two members of the Allman Brothers—guitarist Warren Haynes and bassist Allen Woody—along with drummer Matt Abts.

My friend and I pulled up the craggy, red-clay hill that served as the driveway and made our way into the ply board structure. A bar made from unpainted two by fours served canned beer and the crowd of college kids mingled with country yokels as a thunderous roar came from the stage area in the corner. We were enthralled. Exhilarated. A little bit scared.

That was the birth of Gov’t Mule. The next year, they’d release their eponymous debut album. Soon, Haynes and Woody would leave the Allmans to focus on the “side project” full time. In 2000, Woody died tragically but the band played on. Next year, they will celebrate their 20th anniversary. This year, they are celebrating their 10th studio album, Shout!, out now on the re-imagined Blue Note Records. They’re doing so the way they have in the past, incorporating their influences into a sound all their own. That sound describes a straight line to their classic rock forbearers. Like the Deep End recordings that followed in the wake of Woody’s death and featured a who’s who of guest bass players, Shout follows the band’s first-ever hiatus with a record that includes a bonus disc featuring a who’s who of guest vocalists. Again, forging the future by embracing the past.

 

Embracing The Influence

There will never be another James Brown, but Warren Haynes may well have assumed his moniker as the “hardest working man in show business.” Mostly known as lead guitarist, vocalist and songwriter for Gov’t Mule, he also tours with his more R&B flavored group, The Warren Haynes Band, and as a member of the Allman Brothers Band; he also occasionally plays with various incarnations of surviving Grateful Dead members in Phil Lesh & Friends and The Dead. This year, he also performed symphonic renditions of the music of Jerry Garcia, backed by several different symphonies in a nationwide tour. And he continues to host his annual benefit show in his home town of Asheville, N.C., the Warren Haynes Christmas Jam, along with the Mule-curated Mountain Jam festival in upstate New York during the summer and annual treks to tropical locations for the Mule Island Exodus festivals. Whew.

But Haynes is focused on Mule now, and the band’s new record and subsequent tour. With Shout!, The Mule shows just how they’ve now carved their own niche in the pantheon of classic rock.

After the unprecedented one-year break—at least from Gov’t Mule; Haynes released a solo record and toured in support of it during the time—the band reconvened at bassist Jorgen Carlsson’s Los Angeles studio in February of 2012. The meeting was intended to be a writing session that might produce some demos. But the chemistry was so satisfying that it yielded several tracks that would end up forming the nucleus of the album.

“The hiatus was very important to us,” says Haynes, calling from a tour stop in Germany. “We’d never had a year off in the entire history of our band, and next year will be 20 years. Taking a break kind of gave us a lot of perspective. Three of the songs turned out so good we decided to keep them for the record, which kind of inspired us to immediately continue that process on the east coast.”

Soon, the quartet—Haynes, Carlsson, founding drummer Abts and keyboardist/multi-instrumentalist Danny Louis—collected themselves at a Connecticut studio to complete the record. The writing came quickly and so did the recording, but soon a new idea began percolating. The idea delayed the release of the record but led to a unique take on the body of work, one that would allow for both a Gov’t Mule recording while also allowing them to pay homage to some of their favorite singers, both heroes and contemporaries. Shout! now comes with two discs, one of Mule in the studio performing the new songs, and another of the same songs with different vocalists.

During recording, some of the songs from the sessions seemed to exude a different character than their previous work, perhaps a byproduct of that much-needed perspective, perhaps a natural evolution. The Haynes-penned “Funny Little Tragedy” reminded Haynes of something Elvis Costello would have done, while the Haynes/Louis composition “Stoop So Low” brought to mind Toots Hibbert. “Scared To Live” sounded like a Dr. John groove, and they just so happened to be playing some dates with him soon.

The idea to have those singers play on the record was too intriguing to resist, but it also began blooming into something entirely new.

“Initially we were thinking maybe sing one verse or something,” says Haynes. “But that’s not a very rock ‘n’ roll approach to things. It seemed a shame to have somebody of that stature come in and sing a small part. So we thought maybe it’d be cool to do a whole bonus version. Then at that point I just made a list of each song and who I would like to hear, other than myself, singing the song. I started making phone calls and the response was overwhelming. But that opened a whole can of worms and we realized we were going to have to take our time and do this the right way.”

And they did, whether it was through sessions in New York or by simply mailing tracks off to the singers to have them add their parts. In many cases, the guest versions of the songs are different arrangements, not just a plugged-in vocal.

“It’s interesting to offer two different interpretations of the songs,” says Haynes. “What we intentionally did was make the arrangement of one version different than the other version. In most cases, the guest vocalist versions are a little shorter and have less jamming or shorter guitar solos, to kind of sound like more of the song and the singer.’”

The bonus disc ended up containing a star-studded list of guest vocalists including not just Costello, Hibbert and Dr. John but also Jim James, Ben Harper, Grace Potter, Dave Matthews, Steve Winwood and others.

The guest vocalist disc serves to highlight the Mule’s secret weapon, their under-heralded songwriting ability. Haynes is a more than able singer, capable of power and nuance. But when others interpret his songs, the bonus disc helps to underscore how varied this group’s sound and songs have become too. Haynes was right. “Scared To Live” is all the more irie in the hands of Hibbert. Costello lends a heightened urgency to “Funny Little Tragedy” and Dr. John remakes “Stoop So Low” into a sinister accusation that peels back the layers of funk influence. Harper (“World Boss”) and Potter (“Whisper In Your Soul”) lend power and swagger to their blues-based tunes, while James (“Captured”) elicits an ethereal quality that hints at the Pink Floydian elements in the music of the Mule.

The approach to this second disc draws obvious comparisons to The Deep End —a time in the evolution of the band where they needed to reassess their future.

“It was the only way the band could continue,” says Haynes of the two Deep End records.  At the time Haynes was distraught over the passing of his bandmate and buddy, and when pressured by management about choosing a bassist for a new album, quipped that he wanted John Entwistle, Chris Squire, Bootsy Collins and a host of other all-stars who were among Woody’s favorites.

“I was kind of being a smart-ass,” Haynes admits. But the smart-ass reply eventually became a reality and the collection eventually included other bassists such as Jack Bruce, Les Claypool, Mike Watt and Flea, among others. So many that it required two releases. It also gave them new life, and helped to change the direction of the band and broaden the musical palette that is more fully realized than ever before on Shout!.

“The influence that came from all those bass players helped open the door for us to pursue directions we always loved but would not have pursued otherwise,” says Haynes. Here on Shout!, the guests serve to illuminate just how far those directions have taken them.

Warren Haynes 

Old School Mule

 

Mule had started off as a power trio, a muscle rock sideband that Haynes, Woody and Abts looked at as a fun experiment. That’s the group that blew the plywood doors off the Turning Point all those years ago.

“We didn’t even have any aspirations of making a second record,” says Haynes of their genesis. “We were just doing something for fun. It definitely was a side project in the beginning. The original concept for what was going to be the first Gov’t Mule record was to make a very low budget, very experimental improvisational record with very little song structure. And by the time we went through the red tape of getting a record deal and a producer and a studio, all that stuff, we started writing songs and becoming more of a real band.”

Gov’t Mule expanded their sound from there, adding further instrumentation and wider range of sounds. After The Deepest End concert, a marathon Last Waltz-style extravaganza that featured most of the guests on the record, the band went through a rotating cast of bass players before finally settling on Andy Hess as the replacement. During this time, they also brought on keyboardist Danny Louis, who as a multi-instrumentalist would go on to contribute via saxophone and guitar as well.

That lineup produced three records—Deja Voodoo (2004), High & Mighty (2006) and Mighty High (2007)—and the band continued to reveal deeper influences, especially on the reggae soaked Mighty High.

But soon, Jorgen Carlsson would replace Hess, and though Louis would stay on as a permanent member, 2009’s By A Thread returned them to a heavier sound more reminiscent of their power-trio beginnings.

“Jorgen’s sound and his natural instincts as a player are not dissimilar to Allen Woody’s,” says Haynes. “They both prefer an aggressive approach both musically and sonically. That’s kind of what Gov’t Mule was founded on in the first place. But he’s also very much his own person and brings his own personality to the music.  He’s very good at adapting different bass sounds to each song.

“I guess most importantly, the chemistry that the four of us have now is very strong and getting better and better all the time. The longer we allow ourselves to pursue that the better it’s going to get.”

[Photos credit: Anna Webber]



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