The Allmans and The Mule: Brothers of the Road
“ These two nights of galvanizing performances are a testament to the strength and subtlety of music that stands on its own terms. ”
Given the fundamental connections between The Allman Brothers Band and Gov't Mule, it was nothing less than inevitable that the two bands tour together someday. Mule was born from the ranks of ABB in the 90's when Warren Haynes and Allen Woody, at that time guitarist and bassist respectively, in the seminal Southern band, joined forces with Matt Abts (with whom they had played as part of Dickey Betts' Pattern Disruptive band a few years prior.
Much has changed since those days for both groups. Gov't Mule suffered the tragic blow of Woody's passing away early in this decade at just about the same time Betts was ejected from The Brothers. Haynes and Abst induced a rebirth of their group as a quartet - adding keyboardist Danny Louis and bassist Andy Hess - during The Deep End project.
Simultaneously, but less formally, The Allmans reconstituted themselves as well. The addition of bassist Oteil Burbridge and guitar master Derek Trucks on the cusp the new millennium began the regenerative process, the final stage of which was to reclaim Haynes into their ranks in 2001. As lynchpin for the group in the studio and on the road, this former sideman for country outlaw David Allen Coe has improved remarkably as a songwriter,singer, guitarist, producer and on-stage leader.
Remarkably, Haynes has filled the same roles, at the same high level, as head of Gov't Mule. To see him perform for both groups on successive nights was to witness a remarkably prolific musician near the top of his game, surrounded by players of comparable caliber, performing with much the same intensity, passion and purpose.
In 2003 the Allman Brothers Band hit what is arguably the highest creative apex of their career. The current lineup's chemistry crystallized in the studio to complete Hittin' The Note, their first such project in nine years, while the group's live performances were consistently full of fire and finesse.
Incorporating cover material in the repertoire only heightened the element of surprise seeing ABB during that period, but much of those interpretations have disappeared over the last two years as the group had re-focused on its core material. What's both revelatory and astounding about The Brothers circa 2006 is how they manage to continue to find nuance in familiar material and open up their own standards for rediscovery, for themselves as much as their audience.
"The Weight was one of two covers played the last weekend of August, appearing late in the set at Tweeter Center Mansfield Massachusetts. Much of its bouncy New Orleans jazz feel came from Mule keyboardist Danny Louis' piano playing, and The Band would be delighted with the arrangement ABB gave it, perhaps no more so than Warren Haynes who smiled infectiously as he danced a little jig around the stage.
This number preceded a duet he performed with Derek Trucks to begin the night's encore. A gut wrenching version of "Preachin' Blues that never lost the wry sense of humor at the core of the material, was but a decoy before Burbridge unleashed the colossal bass intro to "Whipping Post, (perhaps the first time all evening his instrument was clearly audible). The Allman Brothers then proceeded to play a spectacular, near- violent version of this song from their very first album released in 1969.
The keynote of the performance was Derek Trucks' solo. The baby-faced nephew of drummer Butch has virtually no equal among modern electric guitarists, and he built his solo here as he does so many of his spotlights, with the studied concentration of an Indian sitar master. For all his methodical approach though, and with his customary stoicism, Trucks can, and usually does, unleash a virtual firestorm of emotion before he's done and his segment on this tune was no exception. The two-part encore was indicative of the unpredictable undercurrent at work on August 26th. Tweeter Massachusetts' audiences are a rabid lot, ready to shower ABB with roof-raising acclamation before they're even done much to deserve it on any given evening (based no doubt on the long history of The Brothers' appearances at the venue year after year). This night, as if to meet head on the challenge of the crowd's thunderous enthusiasm, The Brothers played a hard-rocking set of their most familiar material. In so doing, the band ultimately exceeded those high expectations through a depth of feeling of their own that matched their listeners'.
Gregg Allman's presence set the standard in that regard. Looking leaner than even in recent years, the namesake of The Allmans sang tunes such as "Ain't My Cross to Bear and "Statesboro Blues with a gutsy depth remarkable for a man his age and history. Add to that his verbosity between songs - for him at least - and an unusually animated mien that led him clap to "You Don't Love Me, plus a few satisfied grins hidden under his neatly trimmed beard, and you were witnessing the continued rebirth of a legendary figure in American rock and blues.
Given his level of strength and enthusiasm, (each of which virtue seems to be coming easier to him as time goes on), it's little wonder he's taking a band on the road for a solo tour this fall. Part of the reason, too, is that The Allman Brothers have curtailed their touring somewhat from previous years, as both Haynes and Trucks work on their solo projects: Mule just released a new studio album, while Trucks reconnects with Eric Clapton in the autumn for another stint in Slowhand's band, alternating that activity with continued promotion of the latest works from The Derek Trucks Band, the Songlines CD and Live DVD.
The side-projects of the two ABB guitarists may explain why there's also a little less breadth of new material in the set lists this summer, but looking at a set list form Tweeter Mansfield couldn't prepare you for the power of the band or the beauty of its musicianship either. The ethereal air of "Aint' Wastin' Time No More was absolutely charged and Haynes' deeply evocative slide work on "Dreams led into "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed in a truly sublime segue.
Here ABB gave their audience everything they were looking for and then some. The previous night at Meadowbrook Farms, The Brothers grounded themselves in the blues as a means of offering its New Hampshire fans surprise after surprise, in the form of songs they might not have expected to hear, played in ways they could not necessarily have expected to hear, in a throwback to the 2003 tours.
The presentation and production of the concert showed some discernible improvement as well. Gone are the gauche graphics in the ABB light-show, the only vestiges of which remain in the shots of the percussionists during their solo turns. Instead the colorful backdrop is replete with images from Jim Flournoy-Holmes artwork for the inside of Eat A Peach. Appropriately enough, some high-altitude photo vistas accompany "Mountain Jam.
"Revival was an appropriate turning point in the two and a half-hour show. The Brothers, led by Trucks, deconstructed this exalting tune in a way only an expert jazz band can dissemble a marriage of melody and rhythm, only to put it back together whole. The band, led by Haynes, accomplished a similarly ingenious feat the next night on "Liz Reed, but this was something else again: the anthemic selection's been a set piece since being exhumed a couple years ago, not the normally expansive likes of the famous instrumental.
All this occurred after an opening triptych of blues including "Done Somebody Wrong, "Can't Lose What You Never Had and "Trouble No More. Played in quick succession, ABB staked a claim to being contemporary masters of the blues, perhaps on par with the authors of those songs (Elmore James and Muddy Waters). The connection to this earthy emotional genre is, to a great extent, what makes ABB live such a stirring experience, particularly when you listen to the means by which they effectively transcend the genre. The taut dramatic instrumental "Hot 'Lanta doesn't sound exactly like the blues, yet the way The Allmans play it these days, it is everything that is the blues: ecstasy, despair, foreboding and faith.
ABB were a blues-jazz band in Gilford, so it was only fitting that they close their set proper with a hard-charging half-hour of "Mountain Jam. While the drums/percussion interlude, like the next night's, never gained true momentum, Butch Trucks, Jaimoe and Marc Quinones otherwise prodded Trucks and Haynes to send what is usually a lilting exploration of melody slicing and diving through the cool late summer air. The Brothers' empathy as musicians is never more apparent than in such open-ended playing, as the headlong momentum generated here gave some inkling of the juggernaut the band would be the next night.
The New Hampshire encore, "No One to Run With, served as continuity hearing the blues-rock band The Allmans became by the time they reached Mansfield. Like the celebratory climax the next evening, there was a certain joyful irony in hearing this the Bo- Diddley derived tune: the fans and the band had more than a few kindred spirits to run with, while the uproarious clamor Saturday night was definite redemption for the painful sensation of feeling tied to a whipping post.
Tailoring their usually free-wheeling extended performances to the opening act niche, Gov't Mule nevertheless proved to be an ideal opener for The Allman Brothers Band. The quartet are all about music first and foremost and combined with their growing popularity and the fevered response to their playing, Mule set just the right tone for the evening each of the two nights.
The sets were distinctly different, suggesting how versatile and professional are Warren Haynes, Danny Louis, Matt Abst and Andy Hess. August 25th found them in a most conventional mode, with Jimmy Cliff's "Many Rivers to Cross the sole left-field cover. But it's intriguing to witness how the Mule has evolved from an essentially improvisational unit to a more song-oriented approach: the intelligence remains in place and the inclination to jam finds its level within the structure of the sets as a whole instead of compositions designed for improvisation.
What Gov't Mule did at the Tweeter was exactly along those lines and appropriate for an early arriving crowd. Unlike the New Hampshire attendees, seemingly more curious than converts, Massachusetts had its contingent of Muleheads ready for the likes of The Beatles "She Said She Said leading without interruption into an almost totally instrumental rendition of "Tomorrow Never Knows (where Warren teased the guitar solo from "A Hard Days' Night!?).
In the context of a setlist that contained such tried and true selections such as "Bad Little Doggie and "Thorazine Shuffle , the appearance of tunes from the just released High & Mighty, like the rousing title song and the reggae-rhythm of "Unring The Bell, sounded perfectly of a piece.
"About to Rage and "Perfect Shelter, vicious rock from the previous cd (and first recording of the quartet) Deja Voodoo, provided additional evidence, as if any was needed, that Gov't Mule are a band as steeped in style as of tremendous work ethic. While much is being made of the topical slant of the new album, this band has a heart: "I'll Be The One is soul music pure and simple (and would sound great with horns!).
As with their brothers of the road, The Allmans, the crowds at Gov't Mule shows may not know all the details of band's history - 'Warren Haynes is in ABB?,' 'Where's "Blue Sky?"', - those perceptions only serve to focus primarily on the music rather than the cult of personality. These two nights of galvanizing performances are a testament to the strength and subtlety of music that stands on its own terms.
Fredy Guzman-Hittin' The Note
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