Mule kicks hard
August 28, 2006
Gov’t Mule emerged, more or less, out of the jam-band realm, a universe of tie-dyed dancers, a communal spirit and sounds that were largely meant to ease the mind. The Mule was formed, in the mid-’90s, by singer-guitarist Warren Haynes and bassist Allen Woody, who were looking for a side project outside of their membership in the boogie-blues Allman Brothers Band.But the trio, rounded out by drummer Matt Abst, came from a musical and emotional place a few steps out of pace with their fellow travelers on the jam-band circuit, such as Phish and String Cheese Incident. From their 1995 self-titled debut, Gov’t Mule created a sound that recalled the heavy rock of Deep Purple and Mountain as much as it did the Allman Brothers. If the sound indicated a heart of darkness at the core of the band, the songs confirmed it. Such Haynes originals as “Wandering Child,” “Thorazine Shuffle” and “Blind Man in the Dark” confessed emotions generally foreign to their jamming brothers; the repertoire of cover tunes – Dave Mason’s “Sad and Deep as You,” Humble Pie’s “30 Days in the Hole” and Neil Young’s “Cortez the Killer” – seemed carefully selected to round out the cold, hard world framed by Haynes’ own lyrics. On the 1999 album “Live … With a Little Help From Our Friends,” recorded on New Year’s Eve 1998, Haynes counts down to midnight, then celebrates the moment with Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs.” Gov’t Mule is capable of lighter sounds and a more optimistic point of view, but it is no accident that the band’s sunniest song, “Soulshine,” was borrowed from the Allman Brothers’ satchel.
“That’s definitely one of the things that’s different between us and the bands we’re associated with,” said the 46-year-old North Carolina native Haynes, from his home in New York City. “Gov’t Mule is more of a rock band and a little heavier and darker.”And that was all before tragedy really hit the band. In August 2000, bassist Woody died in a New York City hotel room. Haynes, who had been extremely close to Woody, considered putting the Mule down. Instead, in 2001, Gov’t Mule began its “Deep End” series of projects. Rather than replace Woody immediately, Haynes and Abst used an ensemble cast of top bassists – the Who’s John Entwistle, Phish’s Mike Gordon, the Grateful Dead’s Phil Lesh, Metallica’s Jason Newsted and Billy Cox from Jimi Hendrix Band of Gypsies, to name a few – on a series of albums that culminated in the ambitious CD/DVD package “The Deepest End,” recorded in one night during the 2003 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.”The Deep End, Vol. 1,” which featured Cream’s Jack Bruce, Deep Purple’s Roger Glover and P-Funk’s Bootsy Collins, among other bassist, directly addressed the loss of Woody in “Banks of the Deep End,” “Down and Out in New York City” and “Effigy.” But eventually, the rotation of bass players took a bit of the hard edge out of Gov’t Mule, as various bassists and other guest players brought funk, jazz and jam sensibilities into the music. The music portion of “The Deepest End” finished with “Soulshine,” a signal, perhaps, that Gov’t Mule was turning a corner.In 2003, Andy Hess was named to fill the bass chair permanently. And Gov’t Mule abandoned any claims to being a power trio by expanding to a quartet, with the addition of keyboardist Danny Louis. The following year, Gov’t Mule released its first album with the new lineup, “Déjà Voodoo,” a blast of desperation that demonstrated that the Mule was still wandering the darkness.Two weeks ago, Gov’t Mule released its eighth CD, “High & Mighty.” The album represents a change in producers; instead of using regular collaborator Michael Barbiero, the band put its sound in the hands of Gordy Johnson, of Canadian band Big Sugar. For recording, the band encamped at Willie Nelson’s Pedernales Studio in the Texas hills. It’s 12 years since the band was formed, six since the death of Woody, and Gov’t Mule is still kicking hard.”That part of Gov’t Mule is front and center on this record,” said Haynes. “I think with each record we’ve done, the band explores new turns without going too far from where we started.”If there is a new direction on “High & Mighty,” it is in social commentary. While Haynes has primarily written from a place of interior pain in the past, the new album has him looking at the outside world. He isn’t pleased. The opening song, “Mr. High & Mighty,” is a statement regarding the America of George W. Bush, Don Cheney, Donald Rumseld and their associates. Haynes laments that a force once used to lift up the weak has been turned into a blunt instrument of intimidation (buildings crumble and peasants cower at the sound of your name / Was it God that gave you that power?”) The song avoids direct finger-pointing, opting for a more universal disgust with swaggering attitudes and righteous chest-thumping. “Unring the Bell” is more specific, pointing at the disconnect between the thoughts of most Americans and what is being done in their name, and urges people to participate in public matters, foreign and domestic.
Haynes says that “High & Mighty” does not reflect a continuing sense of grief and frustration over the death of Woody. Gov’t Mule has emerged from the “Deepest End” period. Whatever is fueling the current brooding stems back to what was there at the birth of the Mule, and doesn’t reflect what’s going on within the band.”Matt and I both reached a place where, when we think of Allen Woody, we’re smiling now. It’s all positive,” said Haynes, who remains a member of the Allman Brothers, but has given up his status as one of the “Friends” in Phil Lesh’s Phil & Friends. (For a few years, Haynes toured with all three bands.) “It’s been since 2000 now, and our healing process has definitely matured. And the band, with Danny and Andy, sounds better than ever. We’re ecstatic that not only did we keep Gov’t Mule together, but we’re excited to step out onstage.”Much of the reason for that excitement has to do with the musical side of the band. If you categorize Gov’t Mule as a hard-rock group, it would be wise to add that they have been the most adventurous and experimental in the genre. The group started out with jazz and Southern rock influences; the “Deep End” projects expanded the range considerably. With “High & Mighty,” they keep pushing outward. The socially conscious message of “Unring the Bell” is tolled on a genuine reggae beat. “Endless Parade” is almost balladlike, with Haynes’ guitar taking on a new gentleness and smoothness, and the band finding a new way to interact. The instrumental “3-String George,” listed as a bonus track, puts the spotlight much on Louis and Hess, with its groove out of the Booker T. & the MGs mold.Haynes says such new sounds aren’t so new. But where the three-hour live show allows space for everything, the albums have been pared down to the band’s essence.”The new record has some influences that haven’t surfaced in the past,” said Haynes. “We’ve explored reggae in the live shows the past few years, but it’s never made it onto the album. There’s folk music, soul music that we’ve been influenced by, but it doesn’t get onto the albums. Our live shows, we’re able to explore a lot more territory.”Haynes, who plays the occasional set as a solo act on acoustic guitar, said there was even a folk feel to some of the songs as written, including “Child of the Earth,” which he composed on acoustic guitar. “But where it wound up, it was as interpreted by a rock ‘n’ roll band,” he said.
For all the wailing of a Gov’t Mule album – from the pained words to the punishing rhythms to Haynes’ voice, the sound of a person having seen too much – Haynes isn’t a despairing sort. In song, his troubles are convincing; in conversation, he isn’t exactly lighthearted, but he is easy and thoughtful. Like a lot of worried souls, he has found that hard-going music is the perfect release from a hard world in which leaders lie, friends die, and our skin is too thin to protect us from the effects.”Music is a wonderful outlet in that way,” he said. “Everyone who loves music has the luxury of being able to lose themselves in the music. And for a musician, it’s exponential beyond that. Sometimes music is the only thing you have to pull yourself through.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org