Gov’t Mule – By a Thread

January 01, 1970

(Evil Teen)


“Sprawling.” “Brawny.” “Jamming.” Terms all used by various
observers at various times to describe NYC’s Gov’t Mule; sometimes as an epithet,
depending on the tint of glasses being peered through. One man’s rock is
another man’s roll, though, so here’s the way the Mule – guitarist Warren
Haynes, drummer Matt Abts, keyboardist Danny Louis and new bassist Jorgen
Carlsson – rolls:




Funky. (Free your ASS,
and in this instance, your MIND will follow.)


Low-down, and




Seriously. (Billy
Gibbons don’t sit in with no pansies.)


Elegant. (Say what?)


For their first studio album in three years (there are
countless live releases, EPs, DVDs and remix projects, so for the sake of
argument we’ll call 2006’s High and
the band’s last record; go to for a complete discography), Gov’t
Mule journeyed down to Texas to Willie Nelson’s Pedernales enclave with
producer Gordie Johnson, who also helmed High
and Mighty.
No doubt everyone was aiming to work a little Rio de los Brazos de Dios mojo into the grooves of By a Thread.


That they did, en route to creating their strongest album to
date, even pausing to genuflect by way
of opening track “Broke Down On The Brazos,” a kinetic, brawny (there’s that
word) thumper featuring the aforementioned Mr. ZZ Top on guitar. As the
Abts-Carlsson-Louis backline lay down an archetypal Lone Star groove, Haynes
and Gibbons play dueling stereo channels, swapping blooze licks, cutting-contest
style, like gunslingers finally coming face to face. Hold on pardnuhs, there’s
plenty room for both of yuh in this here town. Sings Haynes,


Everywhere I go
trouble’s all I find

No matter what I do I feel like I’m losing my mind

Broke down on the Brazos

About to lose my mind.”


Ain’t it always so.
Well, if you’re gonna lose it, might as well use it, too. While Haynes is
perennially ranked high in national and international “best guitarist” polls,
his estimable fretboard skills sometimes overshadow his many other gifts. As a
songwriter, he’s steeped in the ‘70s hard rock, power blues and psychedelia he
grew up on and he “gets” the lyrical and musical vernacular (as epitomized by
the “Brazos” song), but his obvious hunger to know and experience literally every
genre and era of music continues to feed his vision. This is a guy who can
perform Free and Humble Pie covers one night, switch gears and do John Coltrane
and Mongo Santamaria the next, and then wind up doing Prince and the Beatles
the next. He’s also smart enough to have surrounded himself with three of the
most agile players in the biz: longtime drummer Abts, who puts the “Y” into the
“brawny” and consistently demonstrates a jazzbo’s finesse; keyboardist Louis, a
gifted arranger and consummate collaborator, wary of excess but able to add
nuance to virtually any path the Mule (and its frequent onstage guests) heads
down; and bassist Carlsson, Swedish ex-pat, L.A. session player since the early
‘90s, erstwhile member of the Low Millions, charged with maintaining the band’s
storied bass legacy, and bringing an aggressive yet virtuoso side to the band.
The bond these players have forged is evident on By a Thread.


Parts of the album
scan as a musical history lesson, from the aforementioned ZZ-styled TX rocker
to the “No Quarter”-like Led Zep overtones of the jazzily psychedelic “Monday
Mourning Meltdown” (check Louis’ organ and electric piano; they’re pure John
Paul Jones) to the part-waltz/part-stomp 9-minute blues jam of “Inside Outside
Woman Blues #3” which references the Blind Joe Reynolds chestnut “Outside Woman
Blues” previously made famous by Cream. And if you don’t pick up on the Hendrix
stylings coursing through “Any Open Window,” Haynes’ brief “Voodoo Chile”
fretboard flourish and “S’cuse me!” spoken aside just may tip ya; that
the tune’s dedicated to late drummers Mitch Mitchell and Buddy Miles should not
elude your notice, either. But as is typically the case with Gov’t Mule, overt
homage isn’t the intention, for within songs myriad tangents crop up, and the
finished project is always like a jigsaw puzzle: peer close, replay sections,
and you’ll detect individual pieces, discern how the sections slot together;
but pull back and take things in, and you’ll get the big picture with all its
gradations in hue and texture.


By a Thread includes, incidentally, a pair of tunes originally cut during the High and
sessions with prior bassist Andy Hess, the smoky-jazzy “Scenes From
a Troubled Mind” and the spooky ballad “World Wake Up.” Although the latter was
written while Bush was still in office and is a lyric meditation on the events
of that time (“Polarized, hypnotized… logic fails, greed prevails – world, wake
up”) it is clearly relevant to the here and now. Haynes is rarely tagged as a
political songsmith per se – Gov’t Mule songs are littered with the
bones of plenty of bad women, hard-luck individuals and souls on the verge – but
he is a guy who’s lived through at least two corrupt government
administrations in Amerika and he’s never shied away from topical commentary when
the mood strikes, even as he holds out hope that the bad times that bedevil us
won’t last.


Two other songs
bear scrutiny as well. “Forever More” originally appeared on the 2004 Haynes
solo album Live From Bonnaroo. It starts off, true to its origins, as a
delicate acoustic folk number, gradually rising in volume and tempo as the
other players chime in, ultimately spiraling into anthemic territory, replete
with an elegiac wah-wah solo from Haynes. Thematic kin to that cut is “Railroad
Boy,” a traditional folk song with distinctive Celtic overtones (Haynes is a
native of Asheville, NC, located in the Celtic-rich western North Carolina
mountains); here, following an intro from Haynes playing a droning, Richard
Thompson-esque modal riff, the band enters and kicks into the kind of electric
folkrock arrangement that Thompson might’ve conjured years earlier with
Fairport Convention. It’s a riveting, visceral, haunting tune, without question
one of Gov’t Mule’s most elegant moments ever committed to record – and a song
that just may turn the heads of folks who think they’ve got Haynes & Co.
preemptively pegged.


Still kickass after
all these years, sure, but just the same… “elegant,” “delicate,” “elegiac,” haunting”:
perhaps it’s time to expand our vocabulary a bit. Get behind the Mule,
folks, before it gets past YOU.


Standout Tracks: “Railroad
Boy,” “Inside Outside Woman Blues #3,” “Broke Down on the Brazos”


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