Warren Haynes is having another monster year. Gov't Mule toured in February and April, with guests including Dave Schools, Audley Freed, Jason Newsted and even Kid Rock! His work with Phil Lesh and Friends included a brief run in April, a studio debut entitled “There and Back Again,” and west-coast theater shows in June. Warren just finished his second tour of the year with the Allman Brothers Band (who began work on a new album in January), which included a cameo at Bonnaroo between two Chicago Theater shows and a marathon triple-bill in Indiana where Warren performed with all three of his bands. In addition to headlining two nights of Gathering of the Vibes with Phil and Friends, Warren managed a solo acoustic and Gov’t Mule set at the festival.
Which brings us to Sunday, July 7, a chance to hang out on the bus and get some extra sleep in between shows. So what does Warren do? He books a Gov’t Mule concert at the Stone Pony. “The road goes on forever.” Word has it that Asbury Park used to be a respectable upper-class vacation spot on the Jersey Shore. In the past few decades it has certainly fallen on hard times, with many former businesses bankrupt and large buildings abandoned. Music seems to be the one thing this place has going for it, thanks to the Pony, the Convention Center, and the Saint.
The club normally provides an intimate indoor environment, housing only a few hundred guests. In the summer, they occasionally book larger acts to make use of their Summerstage, which holds a capacity of 6500. Many fans used to seeing Gov’t Mule at various indoor clubs came to this show to see the band in a different yet somewhat intimate setting. The doors opened at 4pm, allowing fans to hang out inside the venue, which has 2 bars and a grill. The Summerstage area opened shortly after 5 and the band, less punctual than normal, took the stage at 6:30. Particularly anxious fans chanted “Mule!” and brought an endearing grin to Warren’s face.
Despite the delay, the band certainly came out ready to play. After customary openers “Blind Man in the Dark,” “Lay Your Burden Down,” and “Bad Little Doggie,” the Mule launched into the first extended jam of the evening on Howlin’ Wolf’s classic “How many more years.” In their arrangement, the famous riff from Led Zeppelin’s first album is used as a foundation for the original lyrics as well as some borrowed from “I’m Goin’ Upstairs.” First up in the solo section was Danny Louis, a member of the Warren Haynes Band from the early 90’s and a solid keyboard player. After some funky riffs on a nicely distorted wah-wah clavinet, Danny found himself in a sweet Stevie Wonder groove, quoting “Higher Ground” from the Innervisions album. Warren joined in the tease, chanting, “Danny, keep on playing,” in the style of the song. An incendiary guitar solo followed before the band found its way back home and ended the song.
The band took a break from the breakneck pace with the slide-guitar flavored ballad “Out of the Rain.” This song featured some great bottom-end support from bassist Andy Hess (Black Crowes). As Warren would announce later, Andy is the newest member of the revolving door of Mule bassists, having played his first show with the band the day before at Gathering of the Vibes. Audley Freed, a longtime Mule collaborator, joined the band for the remainder of the set, which included “Sometimes Salvation” from the Crowes repertoire. Audley seems to be a very underrated guitarist on the scene, and he won the crowd over quickly. He made his presence felt from the first note of his solo on “Sco-Mule” through the end of the vicious trades on “30 Days in the Hole.” I can say without hesitation that the “Sco-Mule” was the best I’ve heard, even eclipsing a fall show in Philadelphia that featured an extended bass-scat solo from Oteil Burbridge. After “30 Days in the Hole,” which Warren introduced as “a song about a serious subject matter that I know concerns a lot of you,” the band took a half hour break as the sun set.
The second set started out a bit rough. The opening “Rocking Horse” featured a strange solo by Danny Louis in which he continuously quoted a lick from the song’s bridge. “Beautifully Broken” was a bit undeveloped, “Thorazine Shuffle” was hampered by some miscommunications and equipment failures, and “Time to Confess” was too similar to “Banks of the Deep End” from the first set. Things turned around quickly, however, after those first four songs. A hard-driving “Mule>I’ve been workin’>Mule” featured some incredible guitar work from Haynes. I am always blown away by his ability to play a smoking solo using only his index and middle fingers (he boldly leaves on his slide for the segment that follows). The song reached climax after climax before everyone dropped out, leaving Matt Abts alone on stage. Matt entertained the crowd for nearly 10 minutes with his undeniable chops before the band, augmented again by Audley, came back onstage.
The remainder of the show featured unremarkable versions of “She said” and “Painted Silver Light” interspersed with an amazing jam on “Effigy” and a passionate “Soulshine.” “Effigy” is worth mentioning for its full-band improv, complete with multiple seamless tempo changes. The band had time for one encore, and they chose an old Radiohead song, “Creep,” to send us off into the night.
Despite an uneven second set, the band put on a show that was more than impressive. Personal highlights were Warren’s searing solos on “How many more times,” Danny Louis’ “Higher Ground” quote and his energetic intro to “Soulshine,” Matt Abts’ ridiculous drum solo, and Audley’s brutal solo on “Sco-Mule.” At times, Andy Hess lacked the snarling and heavy sound needed for Gov’t Mule, but his tasteful playing was evident on many of the songs.
Fans of Warren’s various projects can rest assured that he won’t be taking a break anytime soon. Phil Lesh has him booked through the beginning of August, at which point he’ll rejoin the Allman Brothersfor a tour that doesn’t end until September. Gov’t Mule has set up a pre-order booth at concerts for The Deep End Volume 2, which hits stores on Sept. 21. Fans can consult the band’s website for more details. Also of note, Audley Freed will be on tour with Beatlejam this summer and more dates may be announced for X2, Matt Abts’ collaboration with keyboardist Johnny Neel.