Warren Haynes and the Ashes and Dust Band
April 1, 2016
Warren Haynes' musical journey continues. Is he on a quest? Certainly he's not looking for a specific "musical identity." The whole point of the journey seems to be covering as much musical territory as possible in a single lifetime. Indeed, it seems the point is the journey, not the end point.
Since Haynes first hit the scene as a member of the Allman Brothers Band
in the '90s, he's formed Gov't Mule
(a heavy, hard-rocking ensemble) that continues to tour and record. He's also dabbled in soul/funk with the Warren Haynes Band, he's explored jazz-rock fusion with guitarist John Scofield
and his Sco-Mule project and he's worked with the ultimate jam band, The Dead, one of the post-Jerry Garcia
incarnations of the Grateful Dead
Most recently, Haynes has been wading through the ashes and the dust. In fact, that's the name of his most recent album, Ashes and Dust
(Concord 2015) which he recorded with progressive bluegrass band Railroad Earth. For that album, Haynes took a more acoustic approach than most of his prior projects. It was inspired by a desire to explore some of his musical roots from the hills of North Carolina where he grew up listening to folk and bluegrass.
Most of the songs on Ashes and Dust
are Haynes originals, but he also included covers of songs that he grew up playing in the bars of his hometown Asheville
. The overall theme is one of despair, loneliness and struggle. Songs like "Coal Tattoo" and "Company Man" address the dangers and difficulties, both physically and economically, of being a coal miner in Appalachia. Others, like "Stranded in Self-Pity" and "New Year's Eve," deal with loneliness on a more generic level. All the lonely people... Actually, Haynes has been known to quote "Eleanor Rigby" periodically over the years so that theme, in itself, isn't totally new territory.
In contrast to the struggles and pain addressed on the latest album, Friday night's concert by the Ashes and Dust Band was a considerably happier affair. While the set list included five tunes from his latest album, Haynes also drew heavily from the Allman Brothers songbook. And, in typical Haynes fashion, the set list also included several tasty covers, most from the Classic Rock era.
Railroad Earth is a busy band, so to take his new project on the road, Haynes had to assemble a touring band. The core of the road band is a trio known as ChessBoxer which, like Railroad Earth, is grounded in bluegrass, but goes way beyond the tradition. ChessBoxer comprises Ross Holmes on violin, Matt Menefee on banjo and Royal Masat on bass. All three sing too. Rounding out the band Friday night were drummer Jeff Sipe
(Aquarium Rescue Unit, Leftover Salmon) and Royal Masat's brother, Sterling on mandolins and guitars. While many of Haynes' other projects have him singing without backing vocals, the vocal abilities of this band allowed consistent two, three and even five part vocal harmonies throughout the evening.
Overall, the sound is a blend of Americana, bluegrass, rock and jam with doses of jazz and blues here and there. Alison Krauss could step in and seamlessly sing and play with this band. (Attention Mr. Haynes: could you look into this?) While Haynes stuck with an electric guitar all evening (mostly a Gibson Les Paul, but sometimes a Gibson ES-335) most of the rest of the band alternated between acoustic and electric instruments. That was true of the bass, mandolin and banjo. Yes, electric mandolins and banjos. Holmes stayed with his acoustic violin with a pickup throughout the evening. (Was it a violin or fiddle? I'm never quite sure where to draw that line. Haynes introduced him as playing the "fiddle.")
Holmes was a highlight of the evening. He put on the high lonesome vocal harmonies so important for a real bluegrass sound. But it was his violin playing that really captured the audience. He looked casual as he consistently improvised intricate, melodic, catchy solos. At one point, during "Instrumental Illness," an Allman Brothers tune and one of the jazzier selections of the evening, he sounded a bit like Jean-Luc Ponty
... until the "Turkey in the Straw" quote anyway. (Definitely "fiddle" at that point.)
The rest of the band was top-notch as well with all members getting ample opportunity to solo (the jam band part). Haynes, of course, is a top improviser in whatever genre he finds himself. It was fun to hear so many different musical ideas in one band. The group has been playing together for some time now and it shows, particularly in the unison playing. Some of the Allman Brothers covers originally had twin harmony guitar parts, most notably "Blue Sky" and "Jessica." This band's arrangements stepped it up a notch with three way instrumental harmony from Haynes, Menefee on banjo and Holmes on violin (or fiddle).