There was a Mule Marathon at the Beacon Theatre on December 30th and 31st during which evenings Warren Haynes and co. celebrated not just the turn of the years but the history of their band.
The first night in particular illustrated why The Mule has developed such a staunch following over its sixteen year career. Perhaps buoyed by the thought of the impending semi-hiatus in 2011 (postcards for Mountain Jam festival on the seats of the venue), the quartet played loose and free but with a clarity and purpose.
“Wandering Child” set the tone at the opening and the group maintained a no holds-barred attack right through a clutch of self-style standards from their earliest lineup including the late bassist Allen Woody. On “Temporary Saint’ and “Rockin’ Horse,” this lineup of Gov’t Mule displayed a deft touch for dynamics as they stretched out and moved into more subdued material such as “I Shall Return (which contained a deeply-felt chorus or two of Dobie Gray’s “Drift Away).”
Foreshadowing of New Year’s Eve to come, after an extended “Trane” that included teases of Hendrix and the Grateful Dead, Aerosmith guitarist Brad Whitford joined the Mule for a raucous take on “Train Kept a Rollin’”. Whitford reappeared in the second set but not till after saxophonist Bill Evans took center stage to light up Traffic’s “Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys.” The hornman has a great vocabulary and a well-honed sense of how to build a solo.
The theatre only increased when Los Lobos guitarist David Hidalgo ambled on stage to engage in guitar teamwork with Haynes on “Jesus Just Left Chicago” and “Presence of The Lord;’ if the two didn’t work out to the extent they might’ve on the solo section of the Blind Faith tune, the slow sweet outro surely made up for it.
Gov’t Mule had arranged an on-line survey prior to the Beacon run so fans could vote on what originals and covers to hear on the two nights and while this was a fine idea in theory, in practice it reduced at least somewhat the element of surprise that has always distinguished the group’s best performances. Just as the selection of new covers began to appear, there was a sense the band was hurrying somewhat to get throughout all the pre-selected tunes like “Slackjaw Jezebel” and “Broke Down on the Brazos”.
There’s no denying, however, the way the audience was moved on a visceral level by the onslaught of The Mule through Zeppelin’s “Achilles Last Stand” Or the way the increasingly party-minded crowd hushed during the emotive reading of Robin Trower’s “Bridge of Sighs.” Some of the guitar nuances were missing from Bad Company’s self-referential song, but they might’ve been lost in the uproarious singing-along in the gorgeous venue. More interesting by far was the playing of Mountain’s “Nantucket Sleighride” with that band’s drummer Corky Laing flailing away feverishly at the drum kit after being introduced by Bats (who made a case for himself as a truly great drummer on this run.)
The stage festooned with tie-dye, peace signs and twenty foot dragon-like totems, it was only natural to ratchet up the volume for the second set on December 31st if only to enable the musicians to be heard over those in attendance, especially after the rendition of The Beatles “Yer Blues” to close the preceding set. Warren Haynes has rarely looked to be enjoying himself more at this point in the show (how much was he looking forward to the covers of “Shakedown Street” and “Sugaree?)”
If the unleashing of the balloons on his countdown seemed a bit-anticlimactic, it was only because those symbols of celebration descending upon and dispersing through the crowd couldn’t match the pleasure radiating from the performers. Bassist Carlsson took great delight in swooping up and down from the bottom of the ensemble sound, while Louis relished in his role, whether grooving behind his bank of keyboards or dancing around the stage with a guitar strapped on
The third sets of Mule NYE are always unique and 2011’s no exception particularly when Evans returned along with Steely Dan guitarist Jon Herrington for an extended turn through “Sco-Mule.” The former stole the spotlight (again) during “Afro Blue,” so much so that the abrupt ending of an otherwise extended performance, sans encore, left the audience a bit dazed and confused.
Truth be told though, had Gov’t Mule offered a more authoritative sign-off for the night and the New Year, they might well have been overstating the sentiments of combined nostalgia and anticipation expressed during the intros offered each night by Kirk West. Instead, there’s a sense a 2011 run at New York’s Beacon may mark Gov’t Mules return to regular work.