Rock Preview: Gov’t Mule — Very Much on the Move

By Scott McLennan

“One of the positives to come out of this whole [pandemic lockdown] experience is that everyone found out what is important in their lives. Those of us who love music realized just how special it is.”

The king of the sit-in, guitarist Warren Haynes can conduct any band he is either asked (or conceives of) to lead. This summer alone, for example, Haynes popped in to play with Heart’s Ann Wilson at the Cap in Port Chester, NY, and he reunited with Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh, resurrecting a musical relationship that dates back to the late ’90s.

Over his long career, Haynes was a driving force behind the second coming of the Allman Brothers Band, spent a few years playing with the surviving members of the Grateful Dead as The Dead, led a killer soul-leaning ensemble to tour behind his own Man in Motion record, fronted the country-leaning Ashes and Dust Band, and made a few memorable local appearances celebrating the music of Jerry Garcia with the Boston Pops.

But Haynes may be most at home in Gov’t Mule, originally a psychedelic power trio that he, drummer Matt Abts, and bass player Allen Woody formed in 1994. Both Haynes and Woody were playing in the Allman Brothers Band at the time, eventually leaving that group in 1997 to concentrate on the success of Gov’t Mule. Woody’s death in 2000 led Haynes and Abts to different iterations of Gov’t Mule before arrival at the current lineup, which includes keyboard player Danny Louis and bassist Jorgen Carlsson. This configuration has been together since 2008 and has become a leading figure in the jam-rock scene.

Gov’t Mule is making up for touring time lost to the pandemic shut down with a run of concerts in the region including Aug. 9 at the State Theater in Portland, ME; Aug. 10 at Look Memorial Park in Northampton; Aug. 11 at Roadrunner in Boston; and Aug. 13 at the Westville Music Bowl in New Haven, CT.

The show in Boston will also offer an opening set by a band led by bassist Oteil Burbridge, who took over for Woody in the Allmans and for many years jammed alongside Haynes after the guitarist rejoined the Allmans in 2001 (it is reasonable to anticipate some cross-band jamming at Roadrunner). Mule’s New Haven show will also feature Oteil and Friends plus the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and others performing a benefit for Backline, an organization that supports mental health services for people in the music industry.

This flurry of Mule work suits Haynes just fine.

“That was the longest period of not working since I was 15 years old,” he said of the pandemic lockdown.” “One of the positives to come out of this whole experience is that everyone found out what is important in their lives. Those of us who love music realized just how special it is.”

The down time from playing also gave Haynes an opportunity to write new material and map out not one but two new Gov’t Mule records. The first, Heavy Load Blues, came out in November and features a mix of blues covers and Haynes’ originals that fit the customary format of an unfussy and uncomplicated blues record. The other album will be out around March, Haynes said, and it will be a more exploratory Mule excursion.

The two albums were made simultaneously at the Power Station New England studio in Connecticut. The band set up gear in two rooms in the complex, using the bigger studio by day to work on the more expansive project and then taking over a smaller studio at night to cut the blues tunes. “We’d work on these Mule tunes that are more thought-provoking and complex then just go in at night and play blues and have fun. Besides, you’re not supposed to play blues during the day anyway,” Haynes cracked.

The tunes that made their way onto Heavy Load Blues were completed after a few takes, the musicians facing off against each other in the studio. “We were playing through little amplifiers and every microphone was picking up every instrument. Everything was just bleeding into each other, so we’re in the studio basically recording a live performance. The only thing we added after the fact were the horns on a couple of songs,” Haynes explained.

Haynes had a list of about 40 blues chestnuts he wanted to explore, mostly songs that have not been done to death. Or if the tune was well-known, its emotional resonance made it an apt fit for the project.

Gov’t Mule. Photo: Jay Sansone.

For example, The Bobby “Blue” Bland signature “Ain’t No Love in the Heart of the City” is hardly obscure, but it also happened to be one of Gregg Allman’s favorite songs. “The Allman Brothers did that song a few times, and Gregg and I would trade verses. Boz Scaggs sat in one night with us and sang it with Gregg. I knew I wanted to include a Bobby Bland song on this record, and that one just has Gregg’s spirit all over it. It’s nice to touch on those connections,” Haynes said.

A similar connection can be found via Mule’s cover of Charles “Honeyboy” Otis’s “Brother Bill (Last Clean Shirt).” Otis mainly made his mark as a drummer playing with Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, and other blues and R&B legends. But he sang this eerie blues tune, which he wrote jointly with Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. The Animals later revived the song on the band’s 1977 comeback album. For Haynes, though, the joy in covering “Brother Bill (Last Clean Shirt)” comes from the fact that Otis and Allman Brothers drummer Jaimoe were longtime friends. Mule used this wildly un-celebratory song to celebrate their relationship.

Along with other inspired interpretations on the album, including Tom Waits’ “Make It Rain,” Howlin Wolf’s “I Asked for Water (She gave Me Gasoline),” and Elmore James’ “Blues Before Sunrise,” some fresh Haynes cuts are included. The acoustic-guitar driven songs “Heavy Load” and “Black Horizon” were written during the pandemic. And this blues album gave Haynes a chance to finally bring out his compositions “If Heartaches Were Nickels,” a song he wrote in the late ’80s (which was later covered by Joe Bonamassa), and “Hiding Place,” a song recorded by Coco Montoya and now available on the expanded edition of Heavy Load Blues.

Gov’t Mule is including more of these straight-ahead blues songs in its concerts, partly because, as Haynes explains, post-lockdown touring has encouraged some rethinking for the band. “In a lot of cases we had our arrangements and approaches to improvisation pretty set,” Haynes said. “When we decide to totally revisit a song, we are at a new starting point, and that can lead to a good thing or a bad thing. It’s mostly a good thing with us. As we build up the repertoire it’s sometimes good to shake up the tunes and the arrangements.”

In other words, Haynes is making sure that this Mule keeps moving.

Scott McLennan covered music for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette from 1993 to 2008. He then contributed music reviews and features to the Boston Globe, Providence Journal, Portland Press Herald, and WGBH, as well as to the Arts Fuse. He also operated the NE Metal blog to provide in-depth coverage of the region’s heavy metal scene.

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