Mule on the Water: Warren Haynes & Co. in Boston
Bank of America Pavilion
September 7, 2007
The element of surprise is crucial in gauging reaction to a Gov't Mule performance. On occasion, as with the quartet's most recent appearance in Boston, the cumulative impact of the concert can sneak up from behind...
Warren Haynes could hardly have been chipper than he acted on the waterfront on 9/7/07. The customarily taciturn frontman was effusive in his repeated thanks to the crowd throughout the first set as well as unusually solicitous of the audience's state of mind: "How the hell ARE ya?! Then there was the audience singalong he conducted at the end of the second set---first doffing his guitar to walk stage front and center.
The two-song encore that followed a few clamorous moments later was something of a microcosm of the immediately-preceding three hours of music. "Child of the Earth, an understated choice from the band's year-old High and Mighty album, demonstrated how Haynes' best tunes these days are his reflective ballads. It also served as one of a number of displays of how effectively the band utilizes space in its sound: the vigorous electric bass lines of Andy Hess swooped up over and down around the chiming chords of electric guitar. The famous twelve-bar blues of Elmore James' "It Hurts Me Too featured a full-throated Haynes vocal that in combination with the judicious volume level transformed the tune into an expression of heartfelt empathy toward the occupants in the Bank of America Pavilion.
Gov't Mule are not the photogenic sort that'll capture a broad mainstream audience no matter how accessible their music might become or how incessantly and insistently they tour with it. Nevertheless, Warren Haynes & Co. strike a chord with an increasingly wide demographic by their high level of musicianship, choosing to avoid the artifice that can usually be depended upon to score with the undiscriminating public. Devoted fans as well as novice attendees might well have found this early fall performance a highly memorable experience because the whole was far greater than the sum of its parts.
The mix of material comprised tunes from various phases of the band's history juxtaposed to exceptional effect. "Streamline Woman," another cull from the latest CD, was a rousing opener no doubt because of its derivative nature: it sounds like an outtake from Led Zeppelin's Physical Graffiti right down to the mammoth rumble of Matt Abts' drums. Mule sounded more at home following this with "Mother Earth, a Memphis Slim tune from their very first studio album; this blues imparted logic to the setlistan effective bookend to the Elmore James opening number.
Vintage material such as "Thorazine Shuffle, with its perpetually hypnotic bass intro and foundation (why was Hess never introduced like the rest of the group?) may always stand the test of timeas is true of "Time to Confess. Yet the increasingly heavy reggae influence in the latter found new form in a rearrangement of "Soulshine this otherwise overplayed Haynes original emerging as a close cousin of Jimmy Cliff's "Many Rivers to Cross, which Gov't Mule has covered in the past (at this very venue in fact in 2005). In fact, as is often the case with this band, interpretations of outside material provided the truly startling moments of the show and drove momentum higher as the night went on.
With its bedrock riff and topical lyrics, Neil Young's "Southern Man is an almost too obvious choice for Gov't Mule, but even the borderline intrusive, suggestive stage presence of opener Grace Potter couldn't preempt and undermine the raucous drive that brought the first set to a close. The sandwiching of Traffic's "Dear Mr. Fantasy within Seattle supergroup Temple of the Dog's "Hunger Strike produced perhaps the biggest ovation of the night from a crowd with a higher percentage of youth than is the case at many Mule appearances. No doubt that's why the witty tease of T-Rex's "Bang-A-Gong during "Goin' Out West ratcheted up the intensity in the tent even further before the regular set ended.
"So Weak So Strong, with Haynes accompanying himself on twelve-string guitar, was the veritable calm before the storm referenced in "About to Rage," as Gov't Mule marshaled its collective strength on a dub- like reading of "Unring the Bell that seemed to get the whole band into synch with one another. But at least on the surface, the Friday night show was neither a wholly logical nor methodical progression of momentum for Mule. Warren Haynes did not sound at the top of his game on guitar for one thing: he played slide only late in the evening and then preferred to head straight up the fretboard to rest as close as possibleperching on high pitches near the bridge of the instrument.
Earlier in the evening, his thrashing at the same point on his fretboard seemed more like mere crowd- pleasing than the patient development of a dynamic solo (perhaps the guitarist's problems explain why keyboardist Danny Louis got at least a half-dozen good chances to solo?). The erstwhile Allman Brother didn't infuse "Rockin' Horse with his usual fire in either his singing or instrumental soloing, and the muffled crescendo he half-way enacted with Louis suggested this semi-autobographical tune might best be left to ABB.
Still, Gov't Mule undeniably left a resounding impression with this night's concertgoers by the time the quartet left the stage. It's not just a redoubtable work ethic and marathon touring schedules with two-set performances that makes sports metaphors appropriate here. It's a team dynamic in which each member plays a complementary role in the group right to the hilt, one member picking up the slack when another has an off-night. Thus it's fitting to say that even when The Mule doesn't have their 'A' game going, they still, as was the case on this September night, manage to come out winners.