Gov’t Mule’s musical oasis The Space at Westbury, NY 3-8-15

Gov’t Mule’s musical oasis The Space at Westbury, NY 3-8-15

The last few years have been quite busy for Jam Rock legends Government Mule, better known as Gov’t Mule, as they have toured relentlessly, and recently released the live album Sco-Mule in January via Warren Haynes’ NYC based label Evil Teen Records. An official release of one of the band’s most popular bootlegs, partnering up with John Scofield for two mind bending, all instrumental, Jazz-Rock masterpieces, the record is a must have for any fan’s collection. Now on the on the road in celebration of the latest release, as well as their twentieth anniversary, the band brought their mixed bag of tricks to The Space At Westbury on Sunday night, March 8th.

Haynes, vocals/guitar and face of the band, has made the rounds of the Jam, Rock, Classic Rock arena for the past twenty-five years. Besides fronting Gov’t Mule, Haynes has had stints in The Dicky Betts Band, The Allman Brothers Band, David Allen Coe, the Nighthawks, and has teamed up with members of the Grateful Dead, most notably Phil Lesh & Friends, over the years for live performances as well as studio work. Haynes possesses a powerful, gritty voice, and is regarded as one of the best axmen of the last quarter century. While the band continually stretches out songs, they never meander, always managing to be loose and tight at the same time. Along with Haynes, Gov’t Mule is anchored by multi-instrumentalist Danny Louis, drummer Matt Abts, and bassist Jorgen Carlsson. John Scofield joined the band for a select few songs at The Space as well.

In classic Gov’t Mule fashion, the band opened the show with an obscure cover as they tackled “Hammer and Nails” by the Staple Singers. Between 1967 and 1985, the Staple Singers cracked the Top 100 on the U.S. Pop and R&B charts a staggering twenty-seven times. “Hammer and Nails” was not one of these songs. In fact, it was part of the 1962, all-gospel release Swing Low Sweet Chariot. Known for digging deep when it comes to covers, Gov’t Mule outdid themselves once again here. A languid, slow burning intro on slide guitar set the tone for the night. Haynes turned to the lighter side of his vocal style as he delivered a soulful singing over a jazzy rhythm punctuated by expert runs on keys. Their take on the Gospel number then took a hard left as Haynes delivered an absolutely murderous solo on slide guitar before the track fell back to the Gospel sound, followed by another furious flurry on slide guitar, before closing with a gentle, quiet vocal, displaying the band’s incredible range.

1992’s There and Back Again was the debut studio album of former Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh’s Phil Lesh and Friends which featured Haynes on guitar and vocals. Haynes also took part in writing four of the eleven tracks. After their soulful take on the Staple Singers’ “Hammer and Nails”, the band took on the Haynes-penned “Patchwork Quilt” from the album. A swirling, ballad-style Rock number in the vein of the best the early ’70s had to offer (Traffic, Blind Faith, Grateful Dead, Derek & The Dominoes, John Lennon), the band wears their influences front and center on their collective sleeves as simple, effective drumming sets the tone for mellow flourishes on guitar and keys while the vocals are delivered with heartfelt earnestness, portraying feelings of nervous anticipation and unsteadiness, quelled by a triumphant, soaring solo resonating with newfound self-assuredness.

Two-Thousand and thirteen saw the release of Gov’t Mule’s tenth studio effort, Shout!, a double album which found the band, once again, trying something different. Consisting of two full lengths, the first one was the band’s run through the eleven tracks that made up Shout!, while the second one featured the band being joined by various singers for another take. Guests included contemporary stars as well as Rock royalty such as My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, Ben Harper, and Dave Matthews joining the band as well as Elvis Costello, Dr. John, Steve Winwood, and Heavy Metal legend Glenn Hughes, along with a host of others who got in on the action. “Whisper in Your Soul” was recorded with Grace Potter, singer and multi-instrumentalist from Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, a veteran act on the modern Jam band circuit. This song once again featured the unparalleled dynamics of Gov’t Mule. Over the course of a short (for them) seven minute number, the band squeezed in trippy, psychedelic sounds on both guitar and keys, a unique pounding rhythm eschewing the snare for the toms, straight up Pop stylings on vocals, and riffing evoking peak Black Sabbath was slipped in the middle section, and the track closes with guitar runs that pay homage to the early heavy Blues sounds that came out of England in the mid to late ’60s which eventually spawned Heavy Rock and Heavy Metal.

Reaching even further back into music history, Gov’t Mule found themselves in 1937, covering blues legend Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Good Morning, Little Schoolgirl,” as their cosmic travelogue reached back almost eighty years. Here the band dug right down to the root of Rock-n-Roll and all of its wide-ranging sub-genres. Laying down a wah-wah drenched rhythm, replicating Williamson’s acoustic on the original, to open the track, Haynes turned over lead duties to Scofield, as he joined the band for the first time this evening on stage, and mimicked Williamson’s wailing harmonica on the original with his guitar. Haynes and Scofield then traded solos for an extended jam, while Louis got in on the soloing action on organ as well. Gov’t Mule is an intelligent outfit that understands full well were it not for tracks like “Good Morning, Little Schoolgirl,” a song about a taboo subject, laced with blatant and latent rebellion, and one that was originally laid down with an aggressive, defiant, progressive musical style, there would be no Chuck Berry, Elvis, Led Zeppelin, or Sex Pistols. In keeping with the unconventional notion of the historic track, Haynes delivered the final vocal section through a megaphone, giving off an eerie sound, keeping with the theme of the song.

Two-thousand and three’s Hittin’ the Note album from The Allman Brothers Band saw the return of Haynes to the lineup full-time again, with Haynes co-writing nine of the ten originals featured on the album. On this night, the band culled “Instrumental Illness” from Hittin’ the Note, and with Scofield on stage, this was a no-brainer. While based on a classic Allman’s, southern-fried Blues guitar melody, the track wanders off into modern Jazz, classic Blues, and even has some Big Band touches sprinkled throughout. For over fifteen minutes, the single track is essentially several songs in one. In a seemingly effortless manner, the band careened from modern Jazz, to Jam-Band improvisations, to hard Blues, to delicate Blues, to Swing, to Funk, to Country Rock, to Rock ‘n’ Roll, before circling back to modern Jazz for an authoritative, synchronistic outro from Haynes and Scofield. This ambitious, lengthy run through several genres would close the first set, with authority.

Putting on their outlaw country boots, “Which Way Do We Run” opened the second set as the band laid down a plodding, menacing track as the band strayed from their usual, relatively light-hearted subject matter (having fun, traveling, getting high, or women), as Haynes growls lyrics like, “Time fades slowly across the plains………./Demons stealing down from the heavens/Here comes one now with a lightning bolt in his teeth………./Little Elvis Hitler dont’cha follow me/These scars on my back-they’re because of you/And these cuts on my wrist/They’re just me trying to get away from you/And I’m still trying to get away”. The band holds steady throughout with Abts blasting away throughout and Carlsson holding down a grungy, thick bassline covered with muted guitars and keys, the temptation to stretch out is held at bay as they lay down a tight, unyielding track before again reaching back in time as they took on Duke Ellington’s “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be”. Of course, the Ellington track was just used as the foundation for what would become another extended jam with Haynes and Scofield trading extended solos to open and close the song, while Louis stole the spotlight for a lengthy jam on piano that lasted close to five minutes in the middle section as he interspersed the sounds of Ragtime, Jazz, Blues, Honky-Tonk, Country, and Rock.

Turning to Shout! again, the band took on “When the World Gets Small,” a song recorded with legendary musician Steve Winwood for the collaborative portion of the album. It is no mystery Winwood recorded this with the band as the song recalls the best mid-tempo work laid down by Winwood’s legendary band Traffic. Heavy organ, sparse base, and backseat drumming is accompanied by muted guitar runs throughout as Haynes sings in a style that manages to meld confidence and wonder. Again, the band resists the call to tear off in a helter-skelter jam and keeps the song focused for the duration.

For the show’s final two tracks, Gov’t Mule made no secret of the genesis of their sound as they tore through Cream’s “Politician” and Jimi Hendrix’ “Little Wing.” “Politician” was run through expertly as Haynes paid tribute to one of his heroes (Eric Clapton) by perfectly recreating one of, if not the heaviest tracks laid down by Clapton’s fabled power trio Cream. Taking on Hendrix live tends to result in utter brilliance or utter disaster as even forty plus years after his death it seems no one has been able to catch up with the man’s wizardry on guitar. Here, Gov’t Mule, joined by Scofield again, the band laid down a nearly four minute, sprawling intro that never quite played the song’s melody, but continually dropped hints before Haynes finally laid down the main riff. From there, Haynes and Scofield went back and forth for almost fifteen minutes as they both showed the crowd why they are held in such high esteem among fans, critics, and, most importantly, their peers. Putting their own spin on the seminal track, Gov’t Mule, with the help of Scofield, transformed one of Hendrix’ shortest studio cuts into a sprawling masterpiece. Trading prolonged solos, Haynes and Scofield provided a deep, atmospheric, sonic extravaganza for the crowd. An inspiring take on a innovative track in the pantheon of Classic Rock was the ideal way to close a show drenched in tribute and influence from almost one hundred years of recorded music.

Gov’t Mule is a band that not only continually pays homage to an expansive style of music, but also continually re-interprets a wide array of sounds and moods when they take the stage. Those who have an affinity for eclectic, roots-based aural experimentation played with the precision and unwavering flair and technical expertise, drenched in soul, should check out Gov’t Mule if they are in town.

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Gerard Smith
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