Warren Haynes settles into quiet mode
September 1, 2008
ASPEN ” Warren Haynes says he was apprehensive about his Aspen appearance last Labor Day weekend.
Not his gig on the main stage of the Jazz Aspen Snowmass Labor Day Festival, as singer-guitarist with the Allman Brothers Band, that drew a record crowd to the festival. And not his gig the following day, also on the main stage, as frontman of the hard-jamming quartet Gov’t Mule.
It was later than night, playing for a relatively tiny crowd of 450, at the Belly Up nightclub.
“I wasn’t sure how it would go,” said Haynes from his home in New York City. “I thought maybe people would want it to be more up-tempo and a party vibe.”
It’s possible that Haynes was the only one of the approximately 450 people at that solo, more-or-less acoustic performance worried about the outcome. Virtually all of the fans were diehards, and even though Haynes has not been performing as a solo act nearly as often as he did just a few years ago, he knew what to expect. And they knew how to behave. From the moment Haynes opened the show, with a take on Elton John’s “Madman Across the Water,” the crowd was pin-drop quiet, hanging on the next piece of the show. Haynes, instantly at ease, responded by playing unexpected cover tunes (Elvis Costello’s “Alison,” a gorgeous version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” to close the show), telling between-song stories, and pulling out rarities from his own catalogue that he dared the audience to recognize.
“I saw I had a captive audience and a great vibe and people who were willing to go with me where I wanted to go. [Belly Up] is a beautiful place to play, and doing the acoustic thing turned into such a beautiful, intimate thing for me,” he said.
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Haynes returns to Belly Up for two solo shows Monday and Tuesday, the first two solo gigs since last year’s show there. As with the last appearance, and all of his solo shows, it will be a far different side that Haynes reveals in the performances. Anyone looking for a party atmosphere likely will be hushed into silence. And anyone looking for Haynes’ guitar heroics ” the kind that earned the 48-year-old North Carolina native a ranking of No. 23 in Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time ” will have to check out an Allmans or Gov’t Mule gig.
“The guitar takes a backseat,” said Haynes of the solo shows. “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.”
While the acoustic guitar and the solo setting don’t necessarily mean an absence of fancy picking, look at Leo Kottke, or, perhaps more in Haynes’ realm, Jerry Garcia. But Haynes’ approach to the show is to back off almost entirely from soloing, and even finger-style playing, in favor of strumming and relatively simple instrumental licks. (His solo shows also generally feature a few tunes on which he plays electric slide guitar, but again with restraint.)
Haynes says it is partly a matter of preference. It is also a matter of the material he has written. He often writes songs beginning with an acoustic guitar ” indeed, has an acoustic guitar close by most of the time.
“It’s not like I’ve written a lot of solo pieces for guitar. They’re mostly vocal pieces,” he said. “And the instrumental pieces I’ve done are really hard to do without a band.”
Still, Haynes says he plans to have enough material for the Aspen run so that he won’t repeat any songs over the two nights. Asked if he cared to reveal any of his choices, he declined ” not to keep the element of surprise, he said, but “because I’ll probably change the list 10 times before I get there.” Haynes has a three-point approach to picking songs to cover in his solo shows: It must be a song he can do justice to, or one that he can interpret in a way that hasn’t been done. “Or something I wish I’d written,” he said.
A few years ago, the solo shows were a steady part of Haynes’ touring repertoire. For much of the summer of 2004, he toured as the supporting act for the Dead (and then appeared as singer-guitarist with the Dead, a band that featured former members of the Grateful Dead). In 2003 he did a solo set at the Bonnaroo Festival, which was released the following years as a CD, “Live From Bonnaroo.” (Other solo gigs can be purchased for download at muletracks.net.)
The solo activity has dropped off precipitously since. Haynes explains it as a casualty of his legendarily busy schedule: “The acoustic shows are always squeezed out by other things. I keep telling myself I’ll do a whole tour at some point ” which eventually I will.” Hardcore fans lap up the rare solo gigs; the first Aspen show sold out in minutes.
Haynes remains connected with his quieter ambitions. He is gearing up to make a record which he says is centered around his singer-songwriter side. It will not be a solo effort, however; “It almost seems a shame to be in the studio and not add other musicians,” he said.
Haynes has surrounded himself with a group of New Orleans players ” bassist George Porter, Jr., drummer Raymond Weber and keyboardist Ivan Neville ” plus English keyboardist Ian McLagan for another project that he has begun recording. That album, he said, focuses on soul music, with original songs done in a style that recalls his early soul influences.
There is also a Gov’t Mule record half-recorded; he hopes to finish recording it by the end of the year. Haynes described it as “more melodic, with a conscious effort to not repeat ourselves.” And an Allman Brothers album, which would be the first studio release since 2003’s “Hittin’ the Note,” is being discussed.
Meanwhile, for two nights, Haynes will settle into his quiet mode, strumming his guitar, singing softly and hoping fans don’t call out for “War Pigs” or “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed.”
“It’s always a pleasure for me. Because it’s so different,” he said. “It’s like a vacation. But my whole life’s a vacation. So it’s like a vacation from a vacation.”