Almost a year to the day before their October 15th show at the Orpheum in Boston, Gov't Mule played a truly epic two-set concert at this venerable theatre. Rendering highly-charged versions of their own material early in the concert primed the ecstatic audience for the two-tune collaboration with opener Chris Robinson: a scathing version of David Crosby's "Almost Cut My Hair," followed by a volcanic cover of The Black Crowes' "Sometimes Salvation" served as a segue into a second set populated almost exclusively by interpretations of material ranging from Al Green's "Take Me to the River,"(by way of Talking heads), The Beatles' "I Want You(She's So Heavy)," Zeppelin's "No Quarter," The Who's latter-day "Eminence Front," all brought to a speedcrazed finish with a coupling of "Young Man Blues/"Good Morning Little School Girl" a la vintage Johnny Winter.
Opening the second leg of their tour in support of their new studio album Deja Voodoo , Gov't Mule seemed to deliberately underplay their spectacular appearance of 2003, concentrating on material from this first new album as a four-man band and selections from earlier studio work. It's hard to imagine a heavier, bluesier Mule than the one heard the night the Sox and Yanks got rained out. As a clutch of fresh material"Bad Man Walking,' "About to Rage" and "Mr. Man" gave way to the momentous "Banks of the Deep End, ": it was as if frontman Warren Haynes was effectively bidding adieu to the largely painful transition that took place in the wake of original bassist Allen Woody's death. After a year on the road and in the studio with jazz great John Scofield, new bassman Andy Hess has been playing with Haynes, drummer Matt Abst and keyboardist Danny Louis for almost two years now and he is strong enough and mobile enough to anchor the band's riffs, such as that crushing guitar figure at the foundation of "Lola Leave Your Light On" to the lighter chord progressions of the jazz-rock fusion that is "ScoMule."
The extended take on that tune, including a fleet call and response between Warren and Louis illustrated what may be the main distinction of the Mule: the ability to intelligently improvise within the basic framework of hard rock. It's telling that in opening the second set the group extended itself through tunes from the very first two Gov't Mule albums: "Thelonius Beck" from its debut and "Painted Silver Light" from its follow-up Dose. Originally conceived by Warren Haynes and Woody when the two were members of the Allman Brothers, Mule was meant to resurrect the power trio concept engendered by Cream: such early releases by the Mule live and in the studio were awash in jams the likes of which were popularized by that British trio. If the interplay on the Orpheum stage is any indication, the evolution of the group, as much by natural progression as the untimely passing of Woody, has clearly done little to divert this current unit from its goal.
Danny Louis' electric piano imparts a lighter, crisp texture to the sound in much the same way his slithery organ lines bring a fluidity to the Mule's motion, effectively preventing any collective heavyhandedness. For his part, Warren Haynes is the epitome of the generous musician: if his long-standing participation in The Allman Brothers Band isn't proof enough, or this summer's tenure with The Dead sufficient testimony to his willingness to be a team player, his solo shows afford him all the means he needs to play on his own. Consequently, you don't hear Haynes going off on guitar tangents while playing as member of the Mule. On the contrary,he invariably leaves you wanting just a little more when he steps from the spotlight as he did on "No Need to Suffer."
The mercifully brief drum solo, false stops and starts and all, was the only real concession to the excesses of the genre into which Gov't Mule has breathed new life. As currently constituted, this group displays all the virtues of classic hard rock at its best and none of its caricatured drawbacks; in stark contrast to the high-pitched wail of the hair bands, for instance, Haynes sings with a guttural caterwaul on "Bad Little Doggie," but can exercises some admirable restraint that imparts soul to a tune such as "My Separate Reality." Almost but not quite a 12-bar blues, that cut from Deja Voodoo has a haunting quality that might've benefited the part of this show in particular: while Warren's patience and passion in his guitar playing suggests once again how he continues to develop as a sophisticated musician, one more familiar take---letting Hess wind it out on "Thorazine Shuffle" or including yet another superior new song such as "New World Blues" would've heightened the overall impact of the concert.
As it was, the audience was still perfectly satiated with the one encore they got before the various tapers and high-tech video recorders in the house. Alternating between the dinosaur stomp and bouncing skank arrangement of Al Green's "I'm a Ram," (by way of unsung guitar hero Roy Buchanan) was a perfectly appropriate way to end the performance: Given some of the more eclectic sets the band has put together this autumn, it's a testament to their focused mindset they would tailor a concert to a discerning audience like Boston's. Gov't Mule is determined not to repeat itself, no matter what.