Warren Haynes – Three Bands & Counting

He’s consistently a good interview, but no matter how many times you get the privilege, you come away with the same sense of wonderment: Warren Haynes is mentally organized.

Granted, he’s a lot of things, and you have to expect as much, given how many projects he’s been juggling for how many decades now—and how in the next six months alone he’ll be on tour with Gov’t Mule and the once-again-reconstituted Dead, as well as play solo shows and hold it down with the Allmans for the just-confirmed 2009 Beacon Theater run. But the facility of his answers and the thoroughness of responses to even disparate questions are remarkable. There’s nothing scattershot about the conversation, and even his outright dodges are artful. (No hard feelings on the Dead question, Mr. Haynes. Loose lips and such.)

We caught up with Warren just before Christmas, and as always, for a grab bag of pressing subjects.

I didn’t make it to the Christmas Jam this year, but by all accounts it was a stunner, Warren. Gotta admit my jaw hit the floor looking at some of those set lists.

Oh yeah, it was amazing. We definitely outdid ourselves; we were trying to make it the best one so far and we definitely did. There are so many highlights and having John Paul Jones there…well, one of my favorite moments was doing "Goin’ to California" with him, and also seeing him sit in with everyone. Having the Allman Brothers Band there and Derek Trucks Band and Johnny Winter was special. Ben Harper’s band sounded great. To be honest, a lot of the special moments were moments of collaboration between people in most cases had never met before and were meeting for the first time backstage.

John Paul Jones really did jam with everyone. Was that planned?

Well, he loves to play and he plays so many different instruments. Most of it was spontaneous and not decided til the day of the show.

Was it tough to get him to the Jam? I know you first collaborated at Bonnaroo last year.

He had talked about coming last year [2007]. Stefanie (Scamardo, wife/manager) and I flew over to London for the Zeppelin show and we were talking then about trying to come, but then his schedule got tight and he kept saying maybe next year. When he said he wanted to come this year we were just elated.

The Christmas Jam itself has really evolved: not only do you have the main event but there’s also the Comedy Jam, day performances, film screenings and a lot of other stuff going on. I guess that begs the question: where do you go from here?

Really I just want to see each of those things expand and what else we can do in addition. It’s really fun to see the day time events and the film festival and that stuff become part of it, because it gives local people something to do that’s not normally the case in Asheville, and it gives people who travel in for the show from other cities and states the ability to fill up an entire few days.

Will it be two nights again in 2009?

No, our intent was never to keep it a two day event. That was strictly something to do for the twentieth anniversary, and next time we’ll go back to business as usual. We really just wanted the twentieth to be something special, and the only way to do everything we wanted was two nights at the Civic Center, just based on the guests that had confirmed participation early on.

Turning to the Mule, can you talk about what prompted the change in the bass chair? Why did Andy Hess leave Gov’t Mule?

Andy wanted to move on. It was strictly his decision, and we had known that since early [2008]. He had agreed to continue with us through September so we could take our time and and know we were making the right decision. So, for about a six month period we’d been auditioning people and when we decided on Jorgen (Carlsson), we’d been rehearsing off and on with him already.

As you well know, we couldn’t possibly go back to playing the same set every night. It’s a whole different thing when you change the setlist nightly to the extent that we do, and our repertoire is hundreds of songs. Jorgen spent of lot of his time learning, but then when you start playing together as a band things take on their own life—he’d walk on stage every night and play songs he’d never played before, also knowing he may not play them again for quite a while [laughs]. But he was up for it, and has done a great job. I’m really anxious to see the growth of the band months down the road, once we’ve had a chance to get to the point where we play the songs without thinking.

How did you first connect with Jorgen?

He was recommended by a close personal friend, Jeff Young, who played keyboards with me in my band when I first moved to New York, and then left to play with Steely Dan, Jackson Browne and a lot of others. We’re old friends and when he heard we were making a change he said ‘I think I have the guy.’ He and Jorgen are best friends, and we flew Jorgen from L.A. to New York to have him audition. Of the dozen or so people we auditioned, he was the one that held the closest to the spirit of the band. His playing is somewhere in between Andy’s and Allen Woody’s. I will say that all the people we looked at were amazing in their own right, but something about Jorgen clicked with us in that unspoken way. It’s chemistry.

 And the transition’s been smooth?

As smooth as it could be. From here it’s just all about taking it in new directions, and watching the band grow with his personality injected.

New Year’s Eve in New York is another big Gov’t Mule tradition now. How did you decide to change it up a bit and do acoustic shows in addition to the regular, full-on Mule?

We’re always looking for something different to do, and while New York has become the tradition, the Beacon was closed for renovation so we couldn’t do our normal three nights there.We wanted to figure out a new recipe and we came up with the idea of doing two electric nights at Hammerstein, but to kick it off with two nights at Angel Orensanz, which is an absolutely beautiful place. It’s inspiring to do an acoustic set, too. We’re always looking to shake it up.

It hasn’t gone unnoticed that Dec. 31 will mark 10 years since the recording of Live With A Little Help From Our Friends, which most folks still consider the definitive Mule live document, officially released anyway.

That night was special in so many ways, starting with the fact that one by one these guests—Marc Ford, Bernie Worrell, Randall Bramblett, everybody—started to appear. We never had plans to make a live record that night, but we decided we should record it for posterity because all these guests were coming, and at the time it was the longest show we’d ever played. On your best nights, the music’s almost playing itself. It was one of those kind of nights: things are happening, things are clicking, falling into place, and you’re just so thankful for what’s happening.

Looking at other Mule traditions, you’ve always been strong on packaging tours—your fall tours especially—with younger bands as opening acts, and that leads to a lot of collaboration. You’ve done it recently with Donavon Frankenreiter, Grace Potter, and most recently Back Door Slam. Can you take me through the thought process?

One of the things that we look for in a package is music that we really like as a band, and we want it to hopefully be music that the audience will like as well. If it’s not a band that’s already created momentum on its own, then we want it to be a band that’s moving in that way—we always keep a list of bands we’d love to work with and we start making calls. It’s really important to us to be part of keeping music alive by having bands that are supporting live music in the way that bands like Gov’t Mule are. We like bands that are improvisational, who change the setlist up or just generally approach things different on a nightly basis. Some of the young bands can’t quite do that yet—their repertoire’s just not that big—but it’s fun to watch these kinds of bands play to a Mule audience where there are a lot of the same people in the audience every night of the tour.

Back Door Slam, it would seem, really won over some new fans from your crowd.

I thought they did an amazing job, and they’ve got a great attitude. Our audience can be pretty jaded, as well you know—sometimes they don’t want an opening act at all because in their eyes if there’s no opening act we’ll play that much longer. That’s not always the case, of course, but with the three acts you just mentioned, the audience warmed up to them right away. Sometimes, we may choose bands that are a little less obvious—who aren’t centered around guitar-rock and blues, necessarily. We have really diverse tastes among us.

Anyone in particular, young band-wise, you’d care to plug?

There are a few local New York bands I really like a lot. Earl Greyhound, I’d love to do some more with them. There was another band, London Souls, that was at the Christmas Jam by day, and they’re great. I’m sure there are many more I’m not thinking about; I’m not always in the loop to the extent that some people are.

Can you update us on the next Gov’t Mule album?

We started making a record with Andy, and we have about half a record in the can with Andy that we really like a lot. We’re hoping to get back in the studio in January with Jorgen, and the only thing I’ll say about what we’ve recorded so far is that it’s very different from High & Mighty. We recorded a lot of the songs in the same time frame as High & Mighty but it sounded like two different records. [The new one] is very much a rock and roll record but I see it going in a number of different directions—Danny plays guitar on some songs and not keyboards.

Switching gears, Warren, buzz for the Allman Brothers Band’s 40th anniversary-themed Beacon run has reached critical mass. [The initial 10 dates, which span two weeks in March, were announced on Jan. 1.] Can you hype it a little more for us?

[Laughs] Well, the plan is to pull out all the stops and make it, yes, a big blowout. There will be a lot of special guests. More than ever. It’s something we’re all looking forward to doing and will serve as a culmination of all the Beacon shows that have come before.

Can you speak to any of the rumors that Beacon 2009 will actually be sort of a farewell? That the Allmans are planning to scale things back after this?

There’s no plans on our front to put an end to the Allman Brothers Band any time soon. To be honest, I think we all felt like the last tour we did this year was possibly the best tour we’ve done. Musically speaking, everyone walked off the stage thinking ‘the band sounded amazing tonight’ and that was night after night after night. The 40th anniversary year is going to have a bigger tour than the band has done in a long time, and then we’ll be back to business as usual. There are no immediate plans to pull back.

And how about the thought that you will be touring with the reconstituted Dead? [Note: First dates on the Dead’s 2009 tour was announced Jan. 1, and Haynes will indeed be part of the touring lineup.] Anything to report?

No. If there’s an announcement it’ll be soon, I would think. I’m hopeful.

It’s going to be a packed 2009 for you and also for many of your peers. You go way back with the guys from Phish, for example—your thoughts on their impending reunion?

I’m glad they’re doing it, and I really thought they’d do it even sooner. I think not only is the audience  going to be really happy, but the band as well.

Do you have a favorite Phish collaboration memory?

My first time sitting in with them in Portland, Maine, because it was the first time. But there are so many.

It would seem, also, that given the economic climate we’re going to see some pullback in the number and breadth of music festivals. Seeing as you’re not only a veteran of most of the big festivals but also the host of one of your own—the Mountain Jam, which has already locked in its 2009 dates—what’s your take on the festival glut?

There are definitely a lot of festivals, but I think that’s a good thing because you get a lot of bang for your buck in most cases. People can save up and go to the ones they want to go to, and people who can’t go to a lot of shows can see a lot of the bands they like in one place.

Music has always survived economic recessions even going back to the Great Depression. [Festivals and shows] won’t be the same as in previous years, no. From our side, in the Midwest especially, a lot of Gov’t Mule fans you’d normally see at the shows weren’t there this time around. But a.) I think we’re going to get out of this mess and b.) I think music will survive, of course. We’re champions of people who try to keep ticket prices down. There have been a lot of situations where ticket prices have gone through the roof, but we’ve always been cognizant of trying to keep it affordable. People still need music in their lives.

Chad Berndtson writes for The Patriot Ledger, PopMatters, Glide, Hidden Track, Relix and other publications. He’s based in New York City; drop him a line cberndtson[at]gmail[dot]com.

Live photos by David Oppenheimer

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