Gov’t Mule: Kickin’ back, and back in Aspen
ASPEN – When guitarist Warren Haynes and bassist Allen Woody started Gov’t Mule in 1994, they weren’t thinking about how far they might ride the new band. Haynes and Woody at the time were young bucks who had brought new life to the Allman Brothers Band. And while the two did an impressive job of resuscitating that Southern-rock institution, the Allman’s infrequent recordings and moderate touring schedule weren’t going to satisfy the creative appetites of Haynes and Woody.So they hitched up drummer Matt Abts and put together a side project to fill the down-time on the Allmans’ calendar. They recorded a self-titled debut album, which was released on the small Relativity label, and started on the lower rungs of the touring ladder. At the 1994 H.O.R.D.E. festival in Denver, Gov’t Mule played on a side stage in the parking lot of Fiddler’s Green amphitheater.”I don’t think we ever had designs on making a second record, or having a touring career,” said the 49-year-old Haynes by phone from a tour stop in St. Louis.But if Haynes had cast an eye toward the future, his most optimistic vision for Gov’t Mule would have been very close to where the band has in fact landed. Gov’t Mule plays most of the major U.S. festivals, usually in a featured slot; in April, they will play the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, with an additional late-night show, and in June, they are a featured act at the Azkena Rock Festival in Spain. They have become a regular headliner at Red Rocks and similar venues. Their concert on Sunday, Feb. 14 at Belly Up Aspen, a rare small-club gig, sold out weeks in advance.”Had we been looking down the road, where we would be in 15 years, this is where I’d have said I wanted to be,” Haynes said.There is one episode in the Gov’t Mule story that Haynes would have changed, if he could – the death, in 2000, of Woody. But the band seemed to find strength in adversity. In the wake of Woody’s death, Haynes and Abts launched the Deep End project, with a roster of bass legends – the Who’s John Entwistle, Cream’s Jack Bruce, the Grateful Dead’s Phil Lesh and many more – taking over in the studio and in concert. The chapter may have been sad, but the resulting albums were artistically memorable. Gov’t Mule eventually settled on Andy Hess, who had played in the Black Crowes, as Woody’s replacement, in 2003. In 2008, Hess left the band and was replaced by a Swede, Jorgen Carlsson. Haynes says the lineup shuffle has once again reinvigorated the band.”Jorgen reminded us uncannily of Allen Woody,” Haynes said. “He’s got similar instincts, a similar aggressive tone. He brings that aspect of rock ‘n’ roll bass-playing back to Gov’t Mule. We haven’t played with a bassist since Woody passed away who instinctively played that way.”The chemistry on the whole is getting better all the time. There’s cathartic energy in the band. It’s exciting knowing we get up on-stage each night knowing we’re going to go some new places.”On the stage is where the band – which has been rounded out with keyboardist Danny Louis since 2003 – has made its reputation. But for the moment, Gov’t Mule seems to be rising high on its latest studio album, “By a Thread,” released in October. Recorded at Willie Nelson’s Pedernales Studio, near Austin, Tex., it is the band’s strongest studio music since the Deep End days. Among the album’s biggest fans is Haynes himself. Haynes has a solo album – one that reaches back to his soul-music roots, and features New Orleans players George Porter, Jr. and Ivan Neville – fully recorded, but he is delaying the release, believing “By a Thread” deserves a full chance to reach its audience. His schedule of side projects is largely cleared, so Gov’t Mule has “a clean slate to spread the word.””We left the studio knowing we had done something we could be very proud of. And with the time that’s passed since then, we really feel that way,” Haynes continued of the new album. “We explored new territory but kept our feet in Gov’t Mule-land. In a vibe sort of way, it does revisit our roots.”While staying true to the band’s foundation of guitar-driven hard rock, “By a Thread” also takes vivid leaps into other zones: a surprisingly folky feel on “Gordon James”; reggae on “Frozen Fear”; Texas blues on “Railroad Boy”; and on “Inside Outside Woman Blues #3,” what Haynes calls “a ’60s reckless abandon vibe.” It accomplishes precisely the task Gov’t Mule seems to have assigned themselves: make hard rock that touches on myriad other styles.”For us, it’s always been important to have as many influences as possible rise to the surface,” Haynes said. “You’ll never get around to all of them, but with each record you get a little more of an overview of what Gov’t Mule is and where we’re coming from. There’s so much great timeless music out there – r&b, soul, reggae, jazz, folk, traditional country – that you could never process it all. We’re a rock ‘n’ roll band that allows all these things to come out.”But if anyone were going to hit all the bases of popular music, it would be Haynes. He retains membership in the Allman Brothers, who are still enough of a force to do their annual two-week run in New York next month. Haynes was on-board when the survivors of the Grateful Dead toured last year, and it’s hard to imagine them doing it without Haynes on lead guitar and vocals. Haynes plays the occasional solo show; over the last few years, most of those have taken place at Belly Up. In addition to the soul record, Haynes also has a singer-songwriter album simmering on the back burner.Haynes brings a similar super-hero quality to Gov’t Mule. He does all the lead singing and virtually all of the instrumental soloing in the band’s long, sweaty shows. He writes or co-writes all the original material. Still, he says that Gov’t Mule is a collaborative creation.”It’s very much a band, in the way we’re all in it together,” he said. “We approach performing in a completely democratic manner. When we’re making a record, whether it’s a song I wrote myself or with someone else, we all add our input. Because it’s about making the songs better than they already are. The beauty of having a band is, you get a lot of voices in there.”To Haynes, the beauty of this particular band has been that the music is uncompromised. Hard rock is hardly the flavor of the moment; mixing hard rock with soul and reggae is not exactly the formula for success.”We’re playing music exactly the way we’ve wanted. And in some cases, getting away with murder,” Haynes said. “And we’ve built our audience through that. That’s what I’m so proud of.”firstname.lastname@example.org
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