February 12-13, 2010
OK, I know what you're thinking: "Oh for cryin' out loud, Anderson went to see Gov't. Mule again!" Actually, it's worse than that; I went to see Gov't. Mule, twice! Friday night the Mule played the (relatively) intimate Gothic and Saturday night they played the somewhat more spacious Fillmore with the North Mississippi Allstars opening. The Mule keeps me coming back through a combination of a seemingly endless repertoire, a style that ranges well beyond their heavy rock roots into reggae, jazz, funk, down and dirty blues and gut wrenching ballads. Then there's the musicianship: impeccable.
Here's the deal with the repertoire: they played two shows in Denver, each one 2½ hours long, then played another show in Aspen the next night and didn't repeat a single song. That's why it's easy to see the Mule two nights in a row; they played two completely different shows.
Friday night's concert was at the Gothic Theater, a converted movie house that holds around 1,000 people. This band is getting too big for a venue that small as evidenced by the fact they sold out that show as well as the one Saturday night at the Fillmore which accommodates 3,700 people. I suspect the Gothic show was designed to let the hard core fans get a little closer and more personal with the band than is possible at a larger venue. Band leader, lead guitarist, vocalist and chief song writer Warren Haynes commented on the sold out Fillmore toward the end of Saturday's show when he said that the band had been playing Colorado since 1995 (the year their first album was released) and about 200 people turned out at that time. He seemed like a proud father surveying his expanding progeny.
I took full advantage of the smaller venue Friday night and worked my way to the very front of the stage and ended up 10 feet from Haynes for the entire evening. I was in the midst of the real fans, the fist pumpers. These guys knew all the lyrics. I thought I was pretty well versed in the Mule's songs, but this crew knew every word of even the most obscure Mule tunes. Gov't. Mule shows attract a disproportionate number of males, but there were a few women in the front ranks. Mainly they nodded their heads and a few performed vaguely erotic hand gestures throughout the evening.
However, the most fun of standing right in front of Haynes was keeping on eye on his guitars and his technique. He probably used 6 to 8 different guitars throughout the evening including two different 12 strings. He's obviously very particular about getting just the right guitar sound for each song; and that sound changes for nearly every tune. One of the more interesting techniques of the evening came on "Scenes From a Troubled Mind." Like many Mule tunes, this one has a distinctive guitar figure that works its way in and around the vocal. For this song, Haynes slipped a slide on his ring finger and played most of the intricate lick with his index and middle fingers on the fret board, but then threw in a little slide in the middle, then went back to the fingers on the neck.
Besides Gov't. Mule, Haynes is a member of the Allman Brothers Band and plays with the remaining members of the Grateful Dead when they tour as The Dead. Between all these projects and his propensity to cover Classic Rock songs with all three of those outfits, Haynes has turned into Jerry Garcia, Duane Allman and Robert Plant all rolled into one. As usual, the Friday night cover tunes were a kick. The band started with The Who's "I'm Free" from Tommy, then went into Hendrix's "The Wind Cries Mary;" the former a great tune for power chords and the latter an equally great tune, but more suited to one note (at a time) solos.
The first set of the evening wrapped up with Al Green's "I'm a Ram." That one is a good example of the variety of musical styles the Mule often crams into one song. The song starts with a heavy rock lick then shifts to a lilting reggae riff. Guess which one they use for the solos. Another song from that set offered a similar contrast. "New World Blues" starts quiet and contains a delicate ascending triplet figure that nearly mimics John Abercrombie's "Timeless" which was a release from 1975 on the ethereal ECM label. That gives way to a tasty blues-rock lick. Another song in Friday night's first set showed yet another side of the Mule. Songwriting credits for "Kind of Bird" are attributed to Warren Haynes and Dickie Betts. Those two wrote that song in the early '90s when they were both members of the Allman Brothers. This one has an extended jazz jam in the middle with a walking bass line and real bebop feel.
The second set started with not one, but two songs from Pink Floyd's Meddle album from 1971. This is typical of the Mule. Rather than picking a Floyd tune (or two) from one of their popular albums like Dark Side of the Moon or The Wall, they picked songs from a more obscure album, but still one that is known to serious students of Classic Rock. (The same can be said for the choice of "I'm Free" rather than something like "Pinball Wizard" or "Acid Queen" from Tommy.) After the two Floyd songs, the band pulled out "Lively Up Yourself" which, as everyone knows, is not just the best Bob Marley tune ever, it's the best Bob Marley tune by several light years. Genius.
Gov't. Mule recently released an album of all new songs recorded in the studio, By a Thread. The new disc adds 11 new songs to the tracks on their 7 or so prior studio albums. Friday night they only played two new ones including "Inside Outside Woman Blues #3," one of the nastier blues tunes to be penned in the 21st Century. However, on Saturday night, the Mule dug deep into the new material playing 5 of them. The first set started with the first two songs from the new disc, although in reverse order, "Steppin' Lightly" and "Broke Down on the Brazos." The first is another of what is turning out to be a lengthy body of work by Haynes about really bad romances. "How could I be so misled/She drove me outta my head... One of these days I'm gonna get better/Do whatever it takes to get over her." "Broke Down on the Brazos" features ZZ Top guitarist Billy Gibbons on the studio version, so that gives you an idea of the degree of heaviness this one dishes out.
They followed those two songs with "No Need to Suffer" from Life Before Insanity from 2000. That one is notable for its 5/4 time signature and the guitar jam in the middle in that time puts a new twist on the basic blues-rock breakdown. Next up was the first cover of the night, Joni Mitchell's "Woodstock" done up much more like Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young's version than Joni's. Another Mule original, "Thorazine Shuffle" was next. That one sounds like it could be straight out of the Savoy Brown or early Jethro Tull songbook with an infectious, deep blues-rock lick that can stay with you for days after the show. Saturday night's first set concluded with a couple blues classics, "Feel Like Breakin' Up Somebody's Home" and Robert Johnson's "32/20 Blues." The Mule was joined on the first of those by Luther Dickinson, guitarist for the opening North Mississippi Allstars. Then on "32/20 Blues" Luther's brother Cody, drummer for NMAS came on stage to play washboard. The brothers came back later in the evening for the second encore tune, Tom Waits' "Get Behind the Mule" (which followed Nirvana's "All Apologies") That time Cody strapped on a guitar rather than the washboard.
Saturday night's second set featured several more tunes from the latest album as well as a cover that reached yet another genre, Tower of Power's funk classic "What is Hip." The Mule does a great version of this song (despite the lack of a horn section), but it reveals a bit of a weakness in the percussion area. Matt Abts is a great rock and roll drummer, but falls a bit short with the funk. Outside of the specifically arranged sections of the song, he continued to whack the snare on the third beat like any old rock song. By contrast, a funk drummer, like say Russell Batiste of PBS and the Funky Meters or Stanton Moore of Galactic, would be throwing in syncopated snare shots on a regular basis. Nevertheless, the funk prevailed.
The newest member of the Mule is bassist Jorgen Carlsson having replaced Andy Hess about a year and a half ago. Carlsson brings an extremely muscular sound to the band and lays down the massive bottom end necessary for the weightier tunes in the band's book. Danny Louis was originally hired for keyboards, particularly the Hammond B-3 whose sound is so necessary for the classic blues-rock sound. He also occasionally plays trumpet and, for these gigs strapped on a guitar for numerous songs for some rhythm backing to Haynes' leads.
The North Mississippi Allstars opened the show with an hour long set, only half as long as they typically play when on their own. They worked in many of their standard tunes such as "Shake (Your Mama)," I'o Black Maddie," "Shake 'em on Down" and "Goin' Down South," a program which drew heavily on the work of Mississippi Fred McDowell and R. L. Burnside. A highlight was their version of Hendrix' "Hear My Train A Comin'" a slow blues vehicle for guitarist Luther Dickinson to stretch out and throw down scorching, anguished cries. Luther's brother Cody is the drummer and their friend, the enormous Chris Chew plays bass and sings background vocals. As their name implies, the Allstars are from northern Mississippi; hill country. This area of Mississippi lies just outside the fabled Mississippi Delta and a distinctive form of the blues originated in this area. It's a raw, typically one chord, deep groove sound that, when electrified, tends to spell P-A-R-T-Y.
2/12/10 Set List: First Set: I'm Free; Wind Cries Mary; Game Face; Mr. Big; Gordon James; Kind of Bird; New World Blues; I'm a Ram; Second Set: One of These Days; Fearless; Lively Up Yourself; Raven Black Night; Drums; Inside Outside Woman Blues # 3; Brand New Angel; Blind Man in the Dark Encore: Scenes from a Troubled Mind; Fallen Down/Gimme Shelter Tease
2/13/10 Set List: First Set: Steppin' Lightly; Broke Down on the Brazos; No Need to Suffer; Woodstock; Thorazine Shuffle; Temporary Saint; Trane/Third Stone From the Sun/Norwegian Wood; St. Stephen; Feel Like Breakin' Up Somebody's Home; 32/20 Blues Second Set: Railroad Boy; Monday Mourning Meltdown; Beautifully Broken; Brighter Days; Drums; Like Flies; Frozen Fear; Mule; What Is Hip?; Mule; Encore: All Apologies; Get Behind the Mule