Review: Mule-O-Ween @ the Tower

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They all seemed to be having fun: Abts, a grinny Carlsson, and Louis, who played guitar on Knockin’ and a few others and riffed like he was auditioning for a metal band. As for the man himself, well, Warren’s usually at his best when it’s a “special night.” Sure, he’s always on his game to some degree, but the nuance and passion he brought to many of his best solos Saturday were several cuts above the standard melody contortion/riff variation/speed picking techniques he relies on when tired or disengaged. Rest assured, in other words, he brought the heavy artillery to Ventilator Blues, Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo and plenty of others; his solo on Monkey Man alone makes this bootleg well worth your time.

Jackie Greene was a valuable player, sitting in for the whole first set and encore. Just how valuable is a matter of debate. On the one hand, he was a limited presence: no vocal leads, some harp, a stray electric guitar solo here and there, hearty harmonies and a pleasant addition. On the other, he blended in with the Mule so well he didn’t even feel like a guest: just enough complement here, just enough enthusiasm there and some extra heft in all the right places. His sit-in might have felt more resonant, in fact, were it not for Steve Elson, who added an extra dimension to everything he joined, be it with turbulent sax solos, crackling percussion, or, with Louis on trumpet, one-half of a utilitarian horn section.

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Overall, only a few times during the Stones set did the whole ensemble lose momentum. Gimme Shelter should have felt…I don’t know, more terrifying? It was a straight version, marred by Greene’s over-exuberant howling through a fuzzy harmonica mic. Play With Fire didn’t catch much, either: it was the Stones’ version — the haunting guitar strums, that is — and felt a little remote considering what Mule has done with its stretched-out, reggae-fied version of the song in the past. But those are the quibbles; the highs meant a first set long on pure excitement.

It also meant that the second set — straight Mule, and somewhat truncated — would feel like business. Maybe a little like eating vegetables after all that sweet dessert, especially with six straight new songs comprising most of it. That’s not a knock on By A Thread, which to these ears is Mule’s strongest studio album since the first Deep End. It just meant asking a lot of the new material to carry the load, and setting it up for unfair expectations of pacing and delivery. Railroad Boy was the keeper, and the mini-suite Mule’s been developing off it it lately — i.e. Railroad Boy > Monday Mourning Meltdown > Forevermore — has potential if not yet drama. By that late hour, the band seemed a little tired, blown out from the scorcher opening set and ready to play comfortably. A pretty standard Brighter Days peeled off of Frozen Fear, and finally gave way to the always-fiery, if-way-too-often-played Blind Man in the Dark.

I go back and forth on the extended Blind Man, which Mule first developed while on tour with Karl Denson in 2003. There’s merit to the argument that the jammy middle needlessly protracts a corking blues-rock song, sure. But when done right, the jammed-out Blind Man can scale some pretty high peaks, and drum up some particularly tasty fusion progressions. Elson’s presence assured that the latter would happen, and Elson tucked a stemwinder solo between a magnificently expansive electric piano workout from Louis and some baiting of the hook by Warren. Several peaks and valleys later — including a false ending and a quick drums segue — the landing gear came out and it was time to wrap up. Elson hung around, Jackie returned and we were Goin’ Out West — meaty, stomping rock ‘n’ roll with Bang a Gong tossed in for good measure — and home for another year. Another fun one, boyos.

Gov’t Mule
Tower Theater, Upper Darby, PA
Set I and encore with Jackie Greene.

Set I: Under My Thumb*, Monkey Man*, Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo*#, Angie*, Ventilator Blues*#, Shattered*#^, Wild Horses, Slave*#, Gimme Shelter*#, Play With Fire, Paint It Black*, Bitch*#, Brown Sugar*#

Set II: Steppin’ Lightly, Broke Down on the Brazos, Railroad Boy > Monday Mourning Meltdown > Forevermore, Frozen Fear > Brighter Days > Blind Man in the Dark#

Enc: Goin’ Out West#^^ > Bang A Gong (Get It On)# > Goin’ Out West#

Notes: * First time played. # With Steve Elson. ^ Jorgen on drums, Danny on bass, Matt on vocals. ^^ With “Peter Gunn” theme tease.

[Source: Mule.net via Jambands.com Box Scores]

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