Gov’t Mule: American southern rock’s brightest star
Warren Haynes's band Govt't Mule might be over two decades old but it's still one of the genre's giants and its latest album reaffirms this position
It isn’t for nothing that Warren Haynes is known in many circles as rock music’s hardest working man. In the 30 or so years that Haynes, 57, has been lead guitarist, singer and songwriter, he must have played more than 3,000 shows. Haynes has been a member of The Allman Brothers Band ever since that storied group re-formed in 1989, up until it disbanded in 2014; he’s toured with The Dead (the name by which The Grateful Dead played sans Jerry Garcia), with maverick bassist Les Claypool, and with Dave Matthews. But he’s most famous for the act that he co-founded and has led since 1994—Gov’t Mule.
Mule, as fans call Haynes’ four-member group, is a band that is arguably contemporary American southern rock’s brightest star, picking up the mantle left by that genre’s pioneering giants, The Allman Brothers. Early this month, Mule released its 20th official album, Revolution Come…Revolution Go. Twenty albumsin 23 years is no mean feat for a band whose tunes rarely make it to the charts. But Gov’t Mule tours relentlessly and has diehard fans who follow it around and collect recordings obsessively. Besides the official albums, Mule records and sells online every gig it plays. So for those who want them there is literally a never-ending stream of music to hoard. Devout Muleheads (as fans call themselves) are as Net-savvy as the band. They run online fan-sites, databases and forums that buzz with discussions, critiques, ticket trades and other band-related discourses. On its website (Mule.net/from-the-road), the band puts up the set-lists of every gig it plays and fans can head over to MuleTracks (MuleTracks.com), the official website for live downloads of all the band’s shows, to pay and download them in different formats. The recordings, made directly from the soundboard at the shows, are of pristine quality. There are unofficial websites as well, such as the taper-driven Mule Army archive where crowd-recorded shows can be had for free.
On Revolution Come…Revolution Go, an album that comes four years after the previous studio album, long-time fans will be delighted to savour 18 new songs, including a couple of “live in the studio" tracks. Most tracks are upwards of 5 minutes long, driven by Haynes’ powerful lead guitar riffs, Jorgen Carlsson’s thundering bass, drummer Matt Abts’ singular beats, and the whirling and spiralling keyboard lines of Danny Louis. Guest musicians, including Jimmie Vaughan (the late guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan’s elder brother), grace the album.
If all this makes it sound like a super-heavy rock album, it is. And it is not. The difference is made by Haynes, whose guitar, even as he plays ferociously, sounds remarkably soulful and whose vocals, raw and edgy, ooze with empathy. You can hear the influence of jazz and blues; soul and funk; R&B and gospel.
Like others in their discography, Mule’s new album transports to you to southern rock heaven. But as was the case with The Allman Brothers, Gov’t Mule is best heard live. I saw them in 2014 during their annual New Year’s Eve run at New York’s legendary art-deco venue, the Beacon Theatre. The crowd was partly boisterous redneck (they’re a southern band!) and partly yuppie, but the gig was fabulous. They played their own songs, but also a 14-minute cover of the Steve Miller Band’s The Joker; and, much to our surprise, an acoustic cover of Leonard Cohen’s Bird On A Wire. In they end they came back for a double encore, covering Rod Stewart’s Hot Legs and Stay With Me by the Faces.
That’s how eclectic these flag-bearers of southern rock are. Between 2014 and 2016, they released in quick succession three albums that were recorded live—Dark Side Of The Mule, a cover of Pink Floyd songs; Stoned Side Of The Mule, a cover of songs by the Rolling Stones; and Dub Side Of The Mule, an exploration of reggae territory with veteran reggae singer, Toots Hibbert of Toots & the Maytals. Covering a song or two by bands as famous as the Rolling Stones or Pink Floyd can be challenging. Doing entire shows dedicated to such covers can be downright risky. But the Mule bore the risk well. All three are albums worth thumbs-ups.
An adventurous streak has always been part of Haynes’ oeuvre. Back in 1999, the Mule collaborated with jazz guitarist John Scofield for two live concerts that resulted in an album, Sco-Mule. It’s a rare melding of jazz with the blues and southern rock in a recording that is cherished by many, including non-Muleheads. In those early years, Gov’t Mule was a trio: Haynes and Abts were there but so was Allen Woody, who then played bass in The Allman Brothers Band. Woody had a fabulous, Jack Bruce (remember Cream?) kind of playing in a lyrical, classical music style that stands out on Sco-Mule. As it does on another early Mule album—1999’s Live… With a Little Help From Our Friends. Like many rock bands, Gov’t Mule also had its share of tragedy: Woody was found dead in a New York hotel in 2000. He was 44.
The Mule is alive and kicking, though. And touring. As you read this, their summer tour will be under way, with fans listening to live versions of brand new songs from Revolution Come… and, I’m sure, plenty more. And, if you are wondering, like I did, where the band got the name from, apparently it was by delving into history. After the Civil War, freed slaves were given a sliver of land and a mule to start their lives with in some US states. Problem was, that’s all they got, which sometimes led to them taking their frustration out on the mule. The band, it seems, borrowed the name from a phrase that went: “Getting beat like a government mule."
The Lounge list
Five tracks to bookend this week
1. ‘Sarah, Surrender’ by Gov’t Mule from ‘Revolution Come… Revolution Go’
2. ‘Fior di Latte’ by Phoenix from ‘Ti Amo’
3. ‘Betty Dreams of Green Men’ by Guerilla Toss from ‘GT Ultra’
4. ‘I Don’t Want to Be President’ by 4 Jacks from ‘Deal With It’
5. ‘Exhumed’ by Zola Jesus from ‘Okovi’
First Beat is a weekly column on what’s new and groovy at the intersection of music and technology. The writer tweets at @sanjoynarayan