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Gov't Mule at Red Rocks

Geoff Anderson By

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Gov't Mule
Red Rocks
Denver, CO
September 14, 2018

Many musicians like to collect instruments. Certainly guitarists collect guitars. Pat Metheny is a case in point. Over the years he has added a synth-guitar as well as the exotic 42 string Pikasso guitar to his recordings and live performances. Not satisfied with switching guitars for a different sound, Metheny even built a whole new instrument, the auto-mechanical Orchestrion. It's an elaborate machine with drums, guitars, pianos, a bottle organ and whatnot all controlled by Metheny as he plays his guitar. He still takes parts of the Orchestrion on the road to join his band on tour.

Warren Haynes, Gov't Mule's leader, is like that. Friday night at Red Rocks, he used close to a dozen different guitars. But that doesn't soothe his restless spirit. Over the last couple of decades, Haynes has been collecting personas as well. He played blues-rock with the Allman Brothers Band two different times. He went to the psychedelic/Americana side with the remnants of the Grateful Dead after Jerry Garcia's passing. He started the heavy rock band Gov't Mule. He explored the funk/soul side of the blues with the Warren Haynes Band. He got back to his Asheville, North Carolina roots with the bluegrass/Americana inflected Ashes and Dust Band. The set lists of many of the aforementioned bands were littered with cover tunes.

Friday night at Red Rocks, Haynes brought three distinct personas for three different sets. The evening began with a 30 minute solo set by Haynes; just the man and an acoustic guitar (except for the electric hollow body on "Hallelujah Boulevard"). Here, Haynes took on the persona of the earnest singer-songwriter. Several of the songs were from the Ashes and Dust album (Concord, 2015) which he recorded with the bluegrass outfit Railroad Earth That whole album has a bluegrass/folk feel to it so these tunes were easily adaptable to this context. One of the highlights from that album was "Blue Maiden's Tale" with its casually alternating 3/4, 4/4 time. He began with a Jesse Colin Young song entitled "Before You Came" which was about how the Native Americans were getting along just fine before the European settlers showed up. The set concluded with "Soulshine" which is one of Haynes' more popular tunes and one he's performed in multiple contexts including with the Allman Brothers and with Gov't Mule.

Next up was a 75 minute Gov't Mule set featuring Haynes as the rock star. The set featured all original Mule songs, mostly written by Haynes. The exception was the set closer, "Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground;" writing credits on that one to Blind Willie Johnson who recorded it 1927, but it may go back to as early as 1792. At any rate, an excerpt of Johnson's 1927 recording was placed on the Voyager spacecraft as an example of the diversity of life on Earth and launched into inter-galactic space in 1977. The balance of the set was of much more modern vintage including tunes from the most recent Mule album Revolution Come...Revolution Go (Fantasy 2017) including the title track as well as "Dreams and Songs" and "Thorns of Life."

The brand new songs stood side by side with a couple tunes from the first Mule album Gov't Mule (Relativity Records, 1995). "Rocking Horse" was one of those early tunes and one performed by the Allman Brothers during Haynes' tenure with that band. The Allman Brothers' version could get particularly intense with three percussionists whipping the rhythmic foundation into an overpowering frenzy. Matt Abts, the Mule's lone drummer and Jorgen Carlsson on bass did their best to match the Allmans' passion and came pretty close because, after all, the Mule knows a thing or two about intensity. "Mule" is another song from that first album and it, too, cranked up the ferocity toward the end of the set.

The evening's 2½ hour final set was another alter ego; "The Dark Side of the Mule" a band assembled to cover Pink Floyd. The Mule regulars were the core of the band, but they were augmented by three backing vocalists, saxophone and a utility player on guitar, keyboards and vocals. Haynes has covered others' songs in all of his various incarnations and he's particularly fond of this extended cover band. First presenting Dark Side of the Mule ten years ago, he's resurrected the concept for a little over a half dozen shows around the country this year. Like the set of Mule originals, this set covered a wide swath of Floyd material but concentrated heavily on Dark Side of the Moon (Capitol, 1973) and Wish You Were Here (Columbia, 1975) capturing all of the latter and most of the former.

In an interview, Haynes discussed dealing with the guitar sound of David Gilmour, Pink Floyd's guitarist. Gilmour's preferred axe was a Fender Stratocaster, but Haynes is a Gibson man. For instance, during the Mule set, Haynes played an SG, a Firebird, a six-string Les Paul and even a 12-string Les Paul (for "Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground"). So based on his history and his comments in the interview, it seems that strapping on a Fender was sort of a big deal. But it worked. He made the Strat sound like Pink Floyd and, if there was any lingering guilt for is infidelity to Gibson, it didn't show in his playing. As opposed to the gritty Mule guitar sound, he re-created the transparent, gossamer sound Gilmour used to help create the famous Pink Floyd dreamscapes.

The augmented band delivered that floating Pink Floyd sound with the backing vocalists adding the requisite ethereal, wordless flourishes throughout many of the songs. The touchstone for that type of singing in the Floyd context is, of course, "The Great Gig in the Sky," the last cut on side one of Dark Side of the Moon. The album version had a single vocalist pleading and yearning and generally pouring out her soul. Friday night, Machan Taylor, Mini Carlsson and Sophia Ramos each took a turn at reaching into the deepest reaches of her essence and sharing it with the 9,000 souls in attendance. Each was different from the others and energy built with each successive singer.

Ron Holloway on saxophone was a highlight. He's been a Haynes compatriot for some time, participating in the original venture to the Dark Side of the Mule in 2008. Potentially as versatile as Haynes, Holloway was also a member of the R&B and Soul inflected Warren Haynes Band when that unit was touring. Friday night, his solos were a counterpoint to the guitar-centric Mule sound. At times, Holloway put on a honky, squawking R&B sound and at other times added a floating melody on top of the delicate, celestial underpinnings. On an improvised coda to "Any Colour You Like" from Dark Side, Holloway brought a serious jazz influence to the proceedings.
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