February 5, 2004

Mule Back in the Saddle

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On Tuesday night, admired jam band Gov’t Mule rocked the State Theater, keeping a mesmerized crowd on its feet for the entire evening. A mule itself is a hybrid offspring, and so too, in ways, is this group of exceptional musicians, blending musical traditions such as jazz and rugged jamming with rock, and developing directly from the famous Allman Brothers. And as inspiring as the music was, perhaps the story of Gov’t Mule is even more so.

The original band members included legendary guitarist Warren Haynes, bassist Allen Woody, and drummer Matt Abts. Fans everywhere grew accustomed to their Southern essence, and the band itself, comfortable with its unique — and often improvisational — kaleidoscopic blues-rock style, was at a peak. Their fifth album, Life Before Insanity, is full of rich lyrics and sensational instrumental work. But in December 2000, things changed suddenly and dramatically.

Gov’t Mule suffered a demoralizing and potentially crippling loss, as co-founder and bassist Allen Woody passed away. Haynes and Abts were left in limbo about what to do and where to go next. Following a memorial concert that helped create a trust fund for Woody’s family, the remaining band members decided to pay a special tribute to him, creating two studio albums, both entitled The Deep End, and both of which feature an array of all-star guest bassists to fill the void. Meanwhile, experienced keyboardist Danny Louis was added to the band, creating yet another outlet for improvisational expression and also allowing Louis to creatively add keyboard to already existing songs. As Louis told DAZE, “When Allen died, there was a period of time when Warren and Matt weren’t 100% sure about what to do about replacing him, and so the Deep End album happened, just an amazing cavalcade of bass players.” But the tribute wasn’t over quite yet. Last May, Gov’t Mule staged a historic concert entitled “The Deepest End” that lasted over six hours at the Saenger Theater in New Orleans. The concert, which featured over 20 guest musicians, was, according to Louis, a celebration. “During the concert, I could see Allen smiling and laughing,” he recalled. “My thoughts of him that night were less sad, less grieving, and more celebratory.”

The entire process also left Gov’t Mule with a new bassist, Andy Hess. Louis, full of praise for Hess, said, “Andy was a friend of the band and was asked to play with us. Every time he did, we said, ‘Man, that felt great.’ It was a chemical thing. Intangible.”

And that brings us to last Tuesday night, as the band entertained an energetic crowd for over three hours. Raw emotion and creative segues highlighted the evening. Early on, during “Larger than Life,” Haynes played a powerful guitar solo, no doubt a reason why Louis mentioned that “the only reason to be a keyboard player is to play with great guitar players like Warren.” The upbeat tempo of the show continued into songs like “Don’t Step on the Grass, Sam” and “Time to Confess.” The show began to slow down a little, as far as tempo goes, with songs like “Tastes Like Wine.” The lyrics of many of these songs are almost meditative, lulling the relaxed crowd into a state of calmness until a long jam culminated in the exhilarating “Life Before Insanity.”

The band continued to show off its striking improvisational skills. Each musician was given a little solo time to wow the crowd. The song “No Need to Suffer” allowed Haynes to boast his rich vocal range, and its catchy rhythm left people dancing wildly in the aisles. “Painted Silver” was another highlight, and its all-out jam session continued until a breathtaking 10-minute drum solo that eventually led into fan favorite “Thorazine Shuffle.” Lasting almost half an hour, this song was full of creative jams. As Louis explained, “The real heart and soul of the jam band scene are massively talented musicians who love experimenting and playing with each other. On any given night, you might see something happen that is not scripted, is musically new territory, and the audience really gets off on that. Not a lot different than going to a really hardcore jazz place.” Occasionally, as Louis notes, “songs spawn out of spontaneous collective jams during concerts.”

As the show concluded with the poignant “Raven Black Night,” the lyrics spoke of an “escape to another world where we belong.” Perhaps now, over three years after the band was changed forever by tragedy, they can look back and think of Woody watching over them and smiling from another place. Gov’t Mule, while never forgetting its origins and the road along the way, has moved into new exploratory musical ground, and as Louis noted, “I love the feeding off each other, trying not to stay within the lines.” Gov’t Mule has always followed a path of their own.

Archived article by Avash Kalra