Durham, NC boasts a rich jazz and blues heritage, and on a dreary winter evening in March 2015, the Durham Performing Arts Center was the site of another entry into the city’s considerable musical ledger. Gov’t Mule came to town with John Scofield in tow, and that alone is a show worth seeing. But story of the night, and another part of the city’s artistic history, was told while Durham resident Branford Marsalis joined in for the second set.
The first set was nothing to sneeze at, though it seems Scofield may have been doing just that. The 64-year-old guitarist was under the weather, which showed only in his somewhat limited involvement and a few quick tissue breaks. After a foursome of Mule standards (“Lay Your Burden Down”, “Unring the Bell”, “Thorazine Shuffle”, and “Captured”), Sco emerged for a fiery, if brief, run through tunes in his comfort zone. A cover of The Allman Brothers Band’s “Instrumental Illness” – perhaps a cheeky nod to the guitarist’s malady – prefaced flawless runs through his own originals “Jeep on 35” and “Hottentot”.
The second set began with a loose jam from 3/4ths of the Mule, as Haynes slowly made his way on stage and keyboardist Danny Louis experimented on trumpet. Eventually, The Band’s “The Shape I’m In” emerged from the murk. Fully lubricated after a swirling Scofield solo, the jam reached a new level and Haynes welcomed Marsalis to the stage. Both the atmosphere of the exquisite venue and the timbre of the music changed immediately. The band eased into a smoldering, patient mood, working their way into Traffic’s “Low Spark of High Heeled Boys” and playfully finding solos in the cozy crannies of the song’s welcoming structure.
The zenith of the show was a 19-minute exploration of The Allman Brothers Band classic “Dreams”, another tune built for comfort rather than speed. Marsalis joyfully interjected spirited sax proclamations at every possible opportunity and added an effortlessly smooth solo, while Scofield and Haynes found the soul of the song’s guitar-laden heart via drastically different approaches to their solos. Drummer Matt Abts and bassist Jorgen Carlsson admirably held down the insistent backbone, and the result was perfection. It was a North Carolina native (Haynes) leading another legendary guitarist and one of Durham’s most notable residents through a southern psychedelic blues masterpiece, and it was wholly invigorating.
Scofield and Marsalis left the core of the Mule to bang out “Mule” and “Soulshine”, the latter of which flawlessly incorporated Van Morrison’s “Tupelo Honey”. They returned, along with Marsalis collaborator Joey Calderazzo, for a sprawling “Afro Blue” encore. Tapping into the song’s mystical, hypnotic cadence, the ensemble made another memorable twenty minutes out of thin air, twice building the intensity of their instrumental histrionics to a roaring boil before elegantly ending the night. This show had a few bits of normalcy, but ultimately it belongs in any discussion of great moments in the musical history of Gov’t Mule, the venue, and Durham.