Multifaceted is the word that comes to mind while defining the talent and career of the guitarist and singer Warren Haynes. Haynes, 61, is often described as American southern rock music’s “hardest working man”. With good reason, owing to his impossibly frenetic touring schedules and awe-inspiring ability to not only blend into different bands but also become the central guitar hero in whatever outfit he is playing in.
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Since the early 1980s, when he began his career, Haynes has played with several bands, including, notably, the legendary Allman Brothers Band; the Dave Matthews Band; and the Derek Trucks Band. But most of all with his own band, Gov’t Mule, which he started with the late bassist Allen Woody in 1994, as a sort of side project of the Allman Brothers Band. The band, a quartet, now comprises Haynes on guitar and much of the vocals; Matt Abts on drums; Danny Louis on keyboards; and Jorgen Carlsson on bass. Since their formation, Mule (as the band is known to its fans) have released more than 25 albums of either studio or live recordings.
That is nothing. Mule play hundreds of concerts every year and you can stream or download more than 550 of them from a website (Concertarchives.org). In addition to the albums they release officially, nearly every show Mule perform is released digitally and offered for sale to their fans, nicknamed Muleheads. And while Gov’t Mule’s albums and songs rarely make it to the charts, their fans are diehard followers, thronging their shows and even, in a habit reminiscent of Grateful Dead fans, following the band from show to show on a peripatetic itinerary.
Haynes and Gov’t Mule’s basic grounding is in the genre known as southern rock, which originated in the early 1970s and was defined by the music of the Allman Brothers Band. While rock ‘n’ roll, blues and country music are all genres from which southern rock emanated, it is characterised by the prominent (and long) electric lead guitar riffs and vocal style that is often marked by a southern drawl. Mule, the genre’s best-known exponents, carry on the legacy of southern rock.
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So it came as a surprise when last month Mule released what must be their first blues album. Heavy Load Blues is the closest to a pure blues album they have ever recorded. The 13 songs on it include covers of classic blues songs as well as originals written by Haynes.
Among the songs covered by the band are tunes written by blues greats such as Elmore James, Howlin’ Wolf, Kathleen Brennan, Tom Waits and Al Jackson Jr. The mood is set from the get go. The album opener, Blues Before Sunrise, written by Elmore James, who died at the age of 45 in 1963, is scorching, drenched with slide guitar and keyboard riffs and Haynes’ weathered vocals. Mule follow that with a Haynes composition, Hole In My Soul, a song about lost love—a familiar theme in the blues genre. Then comes Wake Up Dead, a song composed by Haynes and his bandmates Abts and Carlsson, which opens with a groovy organ riff, setting the tone for the lead guitar and thumping basslines.
Heavy Load Blues is a studio album but it sounds like a live performance. That is because the band recorded it live in a small studio on analogue equipment, which gives it an immediacy and rawness. “Heavy load” is an apt phrase to describe Mule’s new release. While the band’s music has always doffed a hat to the genre, it has always had a more jam band-like southern blues rock feel to it. But on Heavy Load Blues, it is unadulterated raw and heavy blues that is in focus.
For instance, in their interpretation of Howlin’ Wolf’s I Asked For Water (She Gave Me Gasoline), they do a very funky version of the original, which was simply titled I Asked For Water. Wolf’s version, recorded in the 1950s, was dark and foreboding with his unmistakable vocals. Mule riff on that but their version of it is faster, screechier, wilder, and, well, quite different. In an interview with Houston Press last month, Waynes said: “I’m a huge Howlin’ Wolf fan, and that’s one of the darkest, heaviest blues recordings ever. Just think about that coming out in 1956, it must have just scared people to death. The original version was like what Black Sabbath would be in the ’70s! Just ominous and scary. I didn’t want to do it that way, but still capture the grittiness and dark overtones.”
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With Heavy Load Blues, Mule have dived deep into the genre but also given old tunes by venerated blues musicians a contemporary twist. Mule are best heard live. Some of their best albums are live—albums such as 1999’s Live… With A Little Help From Our Friends or 2003’s The Deepest End, Live In Concert are classic examples of their sound. Their gigs are rock extravaganzas where they explore genres as diverse as reggae, soul or uncompromisingly hard and heavy rock. Mule’s live performances can also be messy and the music, ferocious. Tunes can be as long as 15 minutes or more and the audience, typically, raucous.
So, it is not surprising that when Haynes and his bandmates decided to make a blues album, they not only plunged deep into the genre to explore its roots and pay tribute to past greats but also decided to showcase what the blues really means for Gov’t Mule. The result is an essential album for any blues lover.
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First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.
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