Warren Haynes lets his soul shine in Aspen solo show
ASPEN – Warren Haynes can safely claim status as a guitar god. All the proof he would need would be Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time. Go down to No. 23, and there’s Haynes, called “possibly the hardest-working guitarist on the planet,” and praised for his “controlled intensity” and being a “meaty and masterful slide player.” (But wait, Haynes might add, that list was compiled in 2003, when most of the guitarists mentioned were well past their prime or dead, and Haynes was still in his ascension. If the list were made today, he’d almost certainly be higher.)But what Haynes would truly like is to be called a vocal deity. Playing guitar like few people ever have is cool, but what Haynes has been doing with his six-string is trying to sound like the singers who were his first musical loves.”I think the human voice is the greatest instrument of all,” Haynes said from his home in New York City. “Growing up on soul music, and starting out as a singer first, I think I listen to music from a singer’s point of view, rather than a guitarist’s point of view. I’d already developed my sense of preferences and taste and way of listening to and scrutinizing music by the time I picked up guitar. All my favorite guitar players have that singing quality to their playing.”Haynes is, in fact, a distinguished singer. Since 1989, he has shared lead vocal duties in the Allman Brothers Band with Duane Allman, one of the group’s founding singers. In 1994, Haynes formed Gov’t Mule, a band whose hard rock sound is well-suited for Haynes’ bluesy roar. In the post-Grateful Dead sphere, Haynes has frequently stepped into the Jerry Garcia role, doing a splendid job of generating the emotions and vulnerability necessary to the job. Still, in all those gigs, the guitar overshadowed the singing. When Rolling Stone published its list of the 100 greatest singers, Haynes didn’t make the cut.Now, at 51, he’s putting his voice front and center. Last December, at his annual X-mas Jam fundraiser in his hometown of Asheville, N.C., Haynes launched the Warren Haynes Band, and he followed with “Man in Motion,” released two weeks ago on Stax, a label associated with Memphis soul. Both projects (the album is credited to Haynes alone) are built on the soul music that Haynes gobbled up as a kid. That music didn’t emphasize the guitar, but the singers.In fact, Haynes’ first musical touchstone – “the first sound I can remember that made the hair on my arms stand up, at maybe 5 or 6,” as he put it – was black gospel coming over a regional radio station. But it was a quick jump from gospel to soul. Haynes’ two older brothers had a vast collection that ranged from folk to Sonny Rollins, and Haynes was free to choose as he liked: “As if it were a library, I could check out almost anything I wanted.” What leaped to his ears was soul.”My brothers brought me Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Sam & Dave, and I got inspired at a very young age. I’d sit in my room singing, trying to emulate what I heard,” Haynes said, adding that he also wrote poetry as a kid. “Rock ‘n’ roll inspired me to pick up guitar. But the way I learned to sing carried over into my musical tastes.”As it turns out, the Aspen audience will get a rare view of Haynes as the pure vocalist. In the middle of an extensive run of Warren Haynes Band gigs, Haynes takes a break to play one unaccompanied gig, at Belly Up, on Thursday, May 26. The show was originally posted as a band date, but Haynes had a change of heart. His solo shows are rare, and some of the last few have been at Belly Up. Haynes said he figured, with two Denver shows immediately preceding the Aspen appearance, fans would be able to see the Haynes Band, and then get a special treat at Belly Up.Haynes’ solo shows are designed to spotlight his voice – or more accurately, the songs, ranging from Gov’t Mule material to covers of Elvis Costello, Elton John and Sam Cooke – far more than the guitar. (Though the show is billed as “acoustic and electric,” Haynes becomes a mortal strummer on both acoustic and electric guitars during his solo shows.) “The guitar takes a backseat,” Haynes said in a 2008 interview with The Aspen Times. “It becomes more of a singer-songwriter show. It’s an opportunity to show that other side of myself. It’s taking advantage of the opportunity to do something completely different.”••••”Man in Motion” was a chance to move in a different musical direction. Gov’t Mule, a quartet that toured and recorded prolifically, was overdue for a break. (According to Haynes, they were due for a break a few years ago, then bassist Andy Hess left the band, and Haynes thought it necessary to find a replacement and break him in before a hiatus could begin.)The Gov’t Mule break coincided with Haynes finishing up a batch of songs that didn’t feel like they fit in with his other bands. “They were crying out to be interpreted differently,” he said. So he assembled a group of musicians from outside his usual circle – pianist Ian McLagen from the Faces, singer Ruthie Foster, saxophonist Ron Holloway, and from New Orleans, bassist George Porter from the Meters and keyboardist-singer Ivan Neville – at Willie Nelson’s Pedernales Studio in Texas.Some of the songs reveal the inspiration of classic soul. “River’s Gonna Rise” and “Save Me” reflect the gospel roots of soul; “Every Day Will Be Like a Holiday” is a cover of the William Bell song. Others are something of a departure; the title song is a slightly tongue-in-cheek explanation of Haynes’ career choice: “Still life is overrated/… Life should be an adventure, anything else is a crying shame.” It is a more introspective statement than would be found in old-school soul.The approach to recording, though, was vintage. The band played live, together, and captured the music on tape. Most significantly, gone were Haynes’ guitar effects.”So this is a little less of a rock ‘n’ roll record. It’s pre-rock,” Haynes said. “It’s me doing what those old soul records were like, and the blues records of the Kings – B.B., Freddie, Albert. So all the guitar sounds are cleaner, more traditional-type sounds. All the sounds in general, I guess.””Man in Motion” departs from old soul in another way. Where songs by Otis Redding and Sam Cooke typically were confined to three minutes, Haynes’ tracks generally extend beyond the six-minute mark. Which leaves room for plenty of guitar excursions. Much as Haynes wants to be a singer, he can’t escape the reality that he is a guitar firstname.lastname@example.org
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