SPOTLIGHT: Gov’t Mule Steers All the Way Into the Blues
Photo by Jay Sansone
EDITOR’S NOTE: Gov’t Mule is No Depression’s Spotlight band for November. Read more about them and their new album, Heavy Load Blues, out Nov. 12, all month long.
Albert Murray wrote in Stomping the Blues that Black Americans who invented the blues gifted their ancestors, and eventually the entire world, with a “disposition to confront the most unpromising circumstances and make the most of what little there is to go on, regardless of the odds.” The blues tradition also enabled its participants to “find delight in the process of forgetting mortality at the height of ecstasy,” he wrote.
Gov’t Mule, one of the world’s best practitioners of blues-based music, have released their first strictly blues record in the middle of a pandemic, when it is nearly impossible to escape reminders of mortality. The aptly titled Heavy Load Blues combines covers and original compositions, transcending its times in the delivery of traditional but intimate and intense music.
When I spoke with Gov’t Mule songwriter, lead guitarist, and singer and all-around musical colossus Warren Haynes, he explained that even if he does not directly reference the pandemic in any of the new songs on Heavy Load Blues, it was the impetus for him and his longtime bandmates — Matt Abts on drums, Danny Louis on keyboards and rhythm guitar, and Jorgen Carlsson on bass — to finally make a blues record after years of considering it. “This is the first time in my life that if you speak to someone you haven’t seen in the past year, you know exactly what their year was like,” Haynes says. “We all felt the same vulnerability.”
“These troubled times called for blues music for my own fulfillment, satisfaction, and nurturing,” he says. Even if the lyrical subject matter is vastly different from the protest music of Gov’t Mule’s previous album, Revolution Come…Revolution Go, the circumstances that inspired the creation of the new songs are similar, Haynes says. “The blues is most important during times of hardship — whether individually, nationally, or globally.”
Gov’t Mule has always charged into its musical compositions and performances with an eye on the blues. Haynes and original bassist Allen Woody started the band, originally conceived as a side project, when they were touring and recording members of The Allman Brothers Band in 1994. Mule’s debut, self-titled record was a forceful combination of rock and roll and heavy blues. On their sophomore album, Dose, the band began to develop what has become their distinctive sound — dexterous and unpredictable jams with the full muscle of Haynes’ titanic voice and brilliant guitar work, Abts’ thunderous but fluid drumming, and Woody’s funky and mighty basslines. Over its 27 years, Gov’t Mule has gone through a few lineup changes. Woody died in 2000, and the band continued with Andy Hess on bass. Carlsson became the permanent bassist in 2008, and Louis, a keyboardist and trombonist who often played guest spots with Mule, enlisted on a full-time basis in 2002.
Given that their live performances are full of improvisation, Carlsson hit the nail on the head when he summarized Gov’t Mule’s eclectic sound as “rock and roll with a jazz formula” in the band’s 2019 concert film Bring On the Music: Live at the Capitol Theatre. Even if the band is a beloved leader of the jam rock genre, Abts shies away from the label. “Jam rock has a lot of noodling,” he told me in 2018. “I like to think that we put more care into the craft of our songs.”
Like other legends of the loose category — The Allman Brothers Band, Grateful Dead, Widespread Panic, and Tedeschi Trucks Band — Gov’t Mule’s influences range from jazz to soul, from classic rock to country. Now the band has come full circle to the genre that first inspired its creation, making a return for reasons that go beyond music.
Many rock bands have gone through their respective blues periods, releasing “tribute” records that sound incongruently modern. Slick production techniques and state-of-the-art equipment contradict the history of the blues and vandalize the artform’s authentic spirit.
It was not only out of deference to history that Gov’t Mule created a genuine replication of their favorite records of the genre, but also for their own creative stimulation. Recording Heavy Load Blues at the same time they worked on another record of new material likely to be released next year, Mule transformed themselves into steelworkers grinding out a double shift, allowing the fire, steam, and weight of the work to escalate into the alchemy of invention. Gov’t Mule spent their days in a large studio at Power Station New England “with all our toys,” Haynes says. But in the evenings, the band moved into a small, low-ceilinged room where they plugged into vintage amplifiers, used no headphones, and “created our own little blues club,” Haynes says. “ … Everything being set up close together, and everything leaking into every microphone, forced us to record live, which was the concept anyway. That would make the record sound like an old blues record, because that’s how all those records were recorded.”
Heavy Load Blues advances the Gov’t Mule tradition of making music live in the studio, rejecting the modern method of dubbing and mixing songs together as if they are digital Lego houses. “For us,” Haynes says, “live is the preferred concept. The way we play together is best captured live, because it is a musical conversation. We never know what we are going to play next until we have the opportunity to respond to each other.”
The power of a live performance is even stronger when playing the blues, Haynes adds. “The beauty of the great blues records is not to be confused with perfection. If you corrected the mistakes on our favorite records, they wouldn’t have the charm that they have. Blues is about capturing a feeling and not overthinking it,” he says.
Imagery and Imagination
A similar search for the organic exists at the heart of the blues lyrical idiom; a vocabulary that Haynes describes as “narratives meant to conjure imagery.” Two of the strongest performances on Heavy Load Blues are “Snatch It Back and Hold It > Hold It Back > Snatch It Back and Hold It” and “Make It Rain.” On the former, Gov’t Mule offers a groove-based rendition of the Junior Wells standard, and thanks to the live recording method, improvises an original, instrumental jam in the middle before effortlessly drifting back into the Junior Wells classic. The song allows Haynes to demonstrate his nimble and unpredictable guitar playing while staying in sync with Abts’ steady but dexterous drumming and Carlsson’s funky bassline.
The sparse lyrics, which allow Haynes to stretch out his propulsive and soulful voice, dramatically contrast with “Make It Rain,” as Gov’t Mule manages to recreate Tom Waits’ gift for mysterious and spooky testimony while pushing the song into new musical territory with extended guitar solos. While not as guttural as Waits’ polarizing vocal style, Haynes delivers the richly detailed story of misery with an unguarded, dark power.
Of all the covers, the most familiar to Gov’t Mule devotees is Ann Peebles’ “Feel Like Breaking Up Somebody’s Home.” Long a staple of Mule’s live sets, it appears here for the first time in studio form. For Heavy Load Blues, Haynes carefully selected songs that Mule had not previously covered, he explains, but “Feel Like Breaking Up Somebody’s Home” is the exception, because “over the years, we’ve developed such a unique arrangement of it.” The bass-heavy version is often a showstopper. Haynes howls and shouts like a man pleading for release from solitary confinement, while Louis serves a trippy keyboard performance straight out of Bitches Brew.
Among the other covers, the song that seems most like Mule is Howlin’ Wolf’s “I Asked Her for Water.” It charges out of the speaker with the intensity of the blast from a flamethrower. Gov’t Mule often manages to create music that sounds like the result of a late-night rendezvous between Ray Charles and Black Sabbath. “I Asked Her for Water” is a perfect example. Haynes’ borderline evil vocal inosculates around the dark and heavy riff, and in the moments that the music deconstructs, it feels as if the band is preparing for the apocalypse. Astonishingly, Haynes reports that the nine-minute song was recorded in a single take.
The Haynes original “If Heartaches Were Nickels,” which was previously covered by Joe Bonamassa, also enables Gov’t Mule to show off its dazzling capabilities. One of the highlights of the album is the “Moondance”-like jazzy interlude that comes mid-song, shifting effortlessly out of Haynes’ hard vocals into Louis’ swinging organ solo, which opens space for Haynes to play a clean-tone guitar solo, all while Abts keeps a straight beat.
A mesmerizing dynamic exists between the covers and other originals. Outside of “Make It Rain,” the covers create a less specific mood, while conjuring the images, along with a general feeling, that Haynes asserts is essential to the blues. His original songs feature lyrics that are more precise, acting as vehicles for the songs to emote with greater specificity. The title track, “Hiding Place,” and “Wake Up Dead” chronicle the lives of men who feel adrift in gray worlds where the weather threatens the rooftops, the conditions promise disaster, and the headlines terrify. Despite the name of the record, several of Haynes’ originals have the band playing more subdued acoustic, gospel blues that resemble a whispered prayer in the fury of contemporary chaos.
Haynes’ testimony is at most resonant, and the band at its most deft, on the closing song, “Black Horizon.” Enraged and confused, Haynes sings:
The world’s turned into a hall of mirrors
It’s showing me what I don’t want to see
Everywhere I look I see a stranger
Am I chasing him or is he chasing me?
Music, at its best, gives an opportunity to explore the questions that most haunt the human heart. The exploration becomes mutual, allowing both artist and listener to feel less alone.
After all the years of Gov’t Mule injecting their music with blues influence, I asked Haynes how it felt to make a blues record, particularly in the middle of a pandemic: “Appropriate and liberating,” he answered, and so summarized the experience of listening to Heavy Load Blues.