Anyone who doubts that Gov’t Mule is the greatest rock ‘n’ roll band in the world is unfamiliar with Gov’t Mule, has hearing difficulties, or is unworthy of trust on matters related to music.
Their force of nature frontman, Warren Haynes, who manages to write songs of depth, surprise, and complexity, sing in a massive voice fit for tribute to B.B. King or Wilson Pickett, and plays guitar with the virtuosity of Hendrix and the sexual rhythm of Richards. Despite all the attention that Haynes rightfully receives, it is shortsighted to neglect the instrumentalists of Mule who round out the behemoth power structure of musical dynamism. Matt Abts, the other original member, is second to none; capable of playing with the thunder with Mule’s hard rock requires it, or offering up subtlety and nuance when they drift into a psychedelic, jazzy jam. On the keyboards and occasionally rhythm guitar, Danny Louis, provides the perfect accompaniment to Haynes’ unpredictable guitar frenzy, while Jorgen Carlsson, playing bass, combines the steady hand of Jason Newsted with the funky styling of Larry Graham.
It is difficult to relegate Mule to one particular genre. They have a Southern Rock influence. They are a jam band. They play masterful blues and funk, but they also slip into the improvisational dream of jazz.
Everything that Mule does well was on full display and in clear amplification on September 17 at the Rosemont Theatre in Rosemont, Illinois. Gov’t Mule took the stage early for an uncharacteristically single set show. Typical Mule performances range from two-and-a-half to three hours, but in what felt like a crime, they took their bows and waved their goodbyes after a mere hour. If it was a crime, the criminals were ZZ Top, the headlining act who commissioned Mule to open for them in an attempt to redefine the term, “anti-climactic.”
Warren Haynes, and his Mule Army, are incapable of messing around. It was obvious that they fashioned their short to issue a bold and brash statement to the audience. Upon taking the stage, they received a soft response from the crowd. Without verbal greeting, they launched three of their heaviest, blues based rock numbers. “Steppin’ Lightly,” “Bad Little Doggie,” and “Lola Leave Your Light On,” announced, “If this is what you like, we can not only do it, but we’ll do it with more intensity and velocity than anything you will witness from the band at the top of your ticket.”
Haynes shouted in a vocal delivery that performed a marital ceremony between Paul Rodgers and James Brown, as the thud of the bottom end shook the floorboards underneath the seats. Haynes’ bending note solos induced facial deformation among anyone with open ears, while clearing out the plaque in everyone’s arteries. They also communicate directly with the loins. Many guitar gods become so obsessed with technical proficiency that they neglect the sexual rhythm and what Kirk Hammett, lead slingman of Metallica, calls the “soul groove.” Haynes has discussed the necessity of the “pause” in playing guitar. He also, no matter how skillful he shreds, never forgets to include the old religion of Scotty Moore, Joe Perry, and Jimmy Page – the religion of the gyration.
With an instant segue way from “Lola Leave Your Light On” into “Mother Earth,” the deep, hard and heavy blues from their debut record, Mule demanded audience attention and enthusiasm. Haynes’ guitar solo, in what seemed like perpetual extension, was one of the best of the night, and the band brought the song, after a full scale break down so Haynes could play high licks, to a roaring, ferocious conclusion. It elicited their first, of many, standing ovations.
If the first half of the set was an open invitation to the ZZ Top crowd to “get behind the mule,” the rest of the show was a demonstration of versatility that the headliners could never imagine possessing and performing.
“No Need to Suffer” featured a spacey jam in the middle break, the highlight of which was the dual, simultaneous soloing from Haynes on guitar and Carlsson on bass. It felt entirely like rock ‘n’ roll thrash, but, paradoxically, with the measured chaos-as-discipline quality of Miles Davis’ band in the 1970s. Part of the brilliant pleasure of Mule even with all of the stunning musical wizardry, there is an unmistakable garage sensibility.
“Mother Earth” and “No Need to Suffer” constituted the first two parts in the holy jam trinity of the evening. The culmination and climax of which was the trio, “Trane,” “Eternity’s Breath,” and “St. Stephen Jam.” Because “St. Stephen Jam” teases both the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers, it usually garners the greatest applause, but “Eternity’s Breath” has a musical interlude that is staggering in its range, and showstopping in its dynamic delivery: Moving from everything to nothing, Mule transitioned, back and forth, with instant rotation, between a riff of Black Sabbath proportions to jazzy scales, backed by rim shots and soft organ. It was a ’70s metal meets ‘60s jazz hybrid of muscality and muscularity, moving into the brain of the audience with the force of a freight train and the sweetness of a gondola.
The show closer, “Soulshine,” was a rhythm and blues exhibition of yet another genre Gov’t Mule has mastered, and yet another reason why, as academic as it seems to argue at a rock show, they have successfully broadened the aesthetic of rock ‘n’ roll, keeping it fun but making it increasingly sophisticated in a show of its proximity to the presentation of jazz, blues, and soul. The stage, under the instruments of Mule, becomes a revolving theater of American music, and an artistic expression of music as documentation of life’s emotional range, rather than cheap entertainment.
Stanley Crouch, newspaper columnist and jazz critic, often ridicules rock ‘n’ roll, because it is “juvenile” and “superficial.” Much of rock ‘n’ roll, for all the enthusiasm it deserves, is guilty as Crouch charges. ZZ Top, with songs like “Sharp Dressed Man” and “Legs,” scored success following the formulaic, adolescent pandering of the rock genre. In its best moments, however, rock ‘n’ roll is a rich musical and lyrical exploration of the individual’s internal variety – the hedonistic triumph of Saturday night, the righteousness of rebellion, and the crash of heartbreak. The distinction between artistry and vulgarity is visible, audible, and palpable in rock ‘n’ roll.
Gov’t Mule effectively carries the freight and works the field of art.
David Masciotra is the author of Mellencamp: American Troubadour (University Press of Kentucky, 2015) and Metallica (a 33 1/3 book from Bloomsbury Publishers). He is currently at work on the forthcoming, Barack Obama: Invisible Man (Eyewear Publishing).