The tour is being billed as the "Rebirth of the Mule" and like the Phoenix from its own ashes, Gov't Mule is back! The final explosion that consumed the big bird was the Deepest End extravaganza back in New Orleans in May, but the fire had been building ever since Allen Woody was laid to rest three years ago. In that time, the fuel that helped the flames go was a vast array of musicians that spent a night or a week or even a few months being a part of Gov't Mule. The results were nothing short of orgasmic and there are multiple CD's and DVD's available to mark this time: standing as a testament to how the Mule sustained itself with more than just a little help from their friends. At the same time, what was being paraded as "Gov't Mule" felt, to me at least, as something completely new and different than the ass-kicking machine that was Haynes, Abts and Woody. The shows that the New Mule put on were often akin to a three-ring circus with a shuffling of musicians from show to show or even song to song. The music was hot, sure, but the flow was missing and so much energy was used toward the spectacle itself that sometimes the music was secondary. This is just an observation, not a condemnation; I assure you, I loved the hell out of every Mule show I've seen – old school and new school alike. But like the mid-life crisis that strikes many a man, this shiny red sports car of a Mule was a phase... and that phase can now be declared officially over.
Through an unforeseen set of circumstances, my trajectory last Friday night found me unexpectedly face-to-face with Gov't Mule – version 3.0 – at the Orpheum Theater in Boston. A Mule show wasn't part of my evening's plans until I actually made my way to my seat, three songs into the set. There was an aura on the stage that I felt within the first few seconds that immediately swallowed me. I felt for the first time what it might have been like to experience a band like Led Zeppelin live – the energy and the wholehearted balls-out rocking that was going on was palpable. Warren Haynes's talents are a given – his presence is a constant force like oxygen in the lungs or water in the ocean. It is when you start mixing things in with the oxygen you're inhaling or throw some sharks in the water that things get interesting. At long last, it appears the Mule has settled on some particularly nasty sharks and has become a "band" once again (you'll find this is a theme for the review). Gov't Mule is: Warren Haynes, Matt Abts, Danny Louis and Andy Hess. Let me make sure you got that last one right: Andy Hess – the future of the Mule and let there be no doubt he does not disappoint. I'll get to him later.
So, getting to some specifics from the show, we can start with the setlist:
1st Set: Thorazine Shuffle, Fool's Moon, Bad Little Doggie, Game Face, Birth Of The Mule, Into The Mystic, Time To Confess, Almost Cut My Hair (1), Sometimes Salvation (1)
2nd Set: Take Me To The River +, Rocking Horse, Monkey Hill > (I Want You) She's So Heavy, Trane > Third Stone jam > Trane > Drums, If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day, No Quarter, Raven Black Night, Eminence Front
Encore: Young Man Blues > Good Morning Little Schoolgirl > Young Man Blues
Setlist Notes: (1) Chris Robinson on vocals and Paul Stacey on guitar; + first time played
Like I said, we missed the opener and the first three songs, but we weren't any worse off for it, I think. My brother jokingly coined the phrase "cover-ment Mule," because of the wealth of cover tunes we were treated to. We all love covers, don't we? Beatles, Van Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, the Who, David Crosby and Led Zeppelin... the setlist reads like a prefab FM radio playlist. When Warren and company are injecting their energy into it, though, it takes on ear-blistering ramifications. Every song had a dirty, well-worn feel to it, like a pair of jeans worn and washed so many times the fabric has literally turned grey with age. The first set was a stop-and-go build up which featured a very hot instrumental romp on "Birth of the Mule" and a jamming in the middle of "Time To Confess" (which I confess, I'm not a huge fan of) that had Hess and Haynes playfully battling each other to the end. I couldn't help but smile watching this band be a cohesive unit, weave in and out of classics old and new and rip each song a new asshole with their collective playing.
By Mir Ali
Chris Robinson and Paul Stacey from New Earth Mud, the opener, came out for the end of the set. "Almost Cut My Hair" got a nice cheer from the crowd as it started up. Chris and Warren took turns trading verses and then Chris laid back for a pair of vicious guitar solos from both Stacey and Haynes. Each solo built up real nicely and finally they were both just wailing away toward a climax. Unfortunately they collectively missed the final rung on the ladder, but they managed to handle the brief letdown just fine. Robinson and Haynes make for a soulful pair and they brought it once again with "Sometimes Salvation" to end the set.
A brief set break was the prelude to a monumental second set. It started with a hairy rendition of "Take Me To the River" – a first for them -and just dove deeper and deeper into a wonderfully hairy mess. As a longtime Widespread Panic fan, this set really had the feel to some of those great Panic sets where you just lose complete sight of forward or backward and find yourself blissfully lost between individual notes. The set was a continuous stream of rockedelic jamming – from "Rocking Horse" to "No Quarter" there didn't seem to be barely a pause.
Warren Haynes has become so ubiquitous over the past few years that he has almost become a stereotype. He is, indeed, the quintessential rock guitarist. During this set I had forward-flashes of an older, wiser me remembering all the wonderful musical experiences Mr. Haynes has granted me over my lifetime. I could only wonder into the future how he would be regarded amongst rock's greatest. Certainly he is a singular entity in the trove of rock and roll guitarists. He did not disappoint on the mind-left-body journeys of Friday's second set.
By Mir Ali
The difference between this Mule and past Mule shows from this millennium was that band. The greatest bands don't necessarily consist of the best musicians at a given instrument; quite often this is a recipe for disaster. The best bands are about chemistry. Warren has played chemist and come up with a rather potent combination. Danny Louis flushes out Gov't Mule as a quartet. He fills in a large swath of musical space, following and egging on Warren and occasionally takes a powerful solo in a refreshing change of pace. His work was solid all night long and added a real psychedelic texture with an array of electric piano, organ and clavinet.
For me, though, Hess was the focal point of the Boston Mule show from top to bottom. My ears couldn't keep their eyes off of his ecstatic bass playing. If the last three years were a journey to find the right fit at bass for Gov't Mule, we can now declare them a complete success. The band as a whole is so tight; it would seem to the virgin Mule-goer that this was the original and only incarnation. In my estimation, Hess has everything to do with it. There is no awkwardness or pussyfooting around the material – many of the songs from even before the Mule was the Mule. Andy has adopted these songs as his own and while he is channeling the spirit of Allen Woody through his fingers, the music is all his and so very much the Mule.
In many instances, for example with "Rocking Horse," he has taken an old "classic" and reinvented it. The result was a heavy full-blown rocktoberfest that coupled massive volume with an intense velocity to send quivers through the Orpheum. On the night following the 7th game of the ALCS, Boston needed some salvation and Hess via the Mule provided it.
My only disappointment with the show was with Matt Abts. I know this is probably sacrilege to a Mule purist, but he just seemed really off to me all night. I always felt that he kind of got lost in the shuffle when the band kept changing line-ups on a bi-weekly basis and Warren seemed to take even more of a spotlight. Now, as the dust has cleared, hopefully this will change. Friday he seemed to be playing a bit manic – always a beat ahead or behind, always full-tilt and a touch overaggressive. I just have one data point here, so I don't want to sound any alarms or overreact, but his playing was a bit of a letdown for the evening... relative to what I expect from the usually ass-kicking skinsman.
The highlight of the show was really the entire second set. "Rocking Horse" set the tone early and took on new life with Hess just coiling with each note and unleashing some low-end gooeyness on the crowd. From there, Andy and Warren lead the charge with a excellently straight-read cover of "She's So Heavy" with Hess and Louis nailing their parts perfectly. The "Trane" was absolutely insane: pure psyche-out instrumental, which was both quiet and deafeningly intense all at the same time. The meandering jam hit the "Third Stone" jam nicely for a measure or two before hitting back on the themes and then slowly winding down to an uneventful drum solo.
"Judgment Day" was really the only break from the theme of the set and was a perfect breather before the ultimate highlight of a superb, purple-and-pink-lights-through-smoke version of Zeppelin's "No Quarter." I saw the first-time-played version of this at the Roseland Ballroom a couple years back and nearly lost my marbles at the sheer intensity Warren brought to this (with some serious help from Dave Schools on that night). This version may have topped that one on more than one level. Hess and Louis created a swampy aura and Warren just had it. This is where it struck me the hardest about how far this quartet had come toward being a full-fledged band. Already in just a week or two of their "Rebirth" tour, they had opened, or should I saw FLUNG open, the vault doors of the Mule catalog as wide as their rabid fans could have hoped. But these weren't merely setlist gems – they were powerful, fully formed instant-classics.
The trend continued with a surprising intro to "Raven Black Night" that followed. Thinking back, they had no choice but to up the ante and go truly old school with this Gov't Mule oldie. It was a bit unsettling to hear this sans Wood's mandolin, but Warren and Danny Louis did their best to generate a mando sound between them. The result was a touch awkward, but the good stuff more than made up for the heartache here. I don't think I've missed Allen Woody as much during a Mule show than I did during these opening moments of "Raven Black Night." In a way, it's a good thing: the Wood-meister will always be a part of Gov't Mule and his long, whiskered shadow looms large over every step this band takes. I am quite sure he is grinning wildly when he gets a load of where Andy Hess is taking his thunder.
The encore was a bit of fun mixed with some serious blues as Warren dropped what could have been a dozen teases (raging from classic blues to Yes) in between each half-verse of "Young Man Blues" one of which evolved into a full-fledged high-tempo version of "Good Morning, Little Schoolgirl" before coming back to complete the sandwich. It was a perfect capper to a near-perfect night of rock and roll.
Ned-O-Matic: 4 stars (out of 5)
JamBase | Boston
Go See Live Music!