Gov’t Mule have always been too experienced and too professional to record anything less than a listenable album or perform anything less than a very interesting show. But bands are like all of us, with their good days and not so good days, and this band is no exception, keenly self-aware enough to know artists’ ups and downs remain on display in their records and leave indelible memories from their concerts (but also fully aware musical beauty is in the ears of the behold, so they sell all their shows via MuleTracks).
The patterns of Gov’t Mule’s creativity are clearly discernible in part because they are so prolific but also because, the group is equally open to the archiving of their vault. So, their evolution is documented for posterity in the form of both studio and stage work, the continuity of which illustrates how they’ve progressed from their initially casual inception in 1994 (designed to resurrect the concept of the power trio ala Cream and the Jimi Hendrix Experience) to the transitional period following the passing of founding bassist Allen Woody in 2000); ‘The New School of Gov’t Mule’ and all variations of The Deep End’ project led directly into ‘Rebirth of the Mule,’ then,in comparably short order, up to and through their 20th anniversary in 2014.
The August 2016 release of Gov’t Mule’s very first recordings, The Tel-Star Sessions, effectively sets the stage for the next studio project, set to begin in autumn of 2016 and, in turn, provides an ideal opportunity to engage in some 20/20 hindsight focused on the band’s extensive discography.
Gov’t Mule From the Studio – Rated From Strongest on Down……
1. Dose (1998): The double meaning in the title of the second Mule album hardly disguises the fact it is the studio corollary to the live album With A Little Help From Our Friends. That is, it is a full and complete artistic statement that can function equally well as an introduction to and summation of the varied strengths of this band.
Again, Michael Barbiero’s production and engineering aids immeasurably in this regard (as does the mastering expertise of George Marino). The sumptuous mix places the listener deep within the instrumental interplay of a band whose natural chemistry allows them to navigate the somewhat more structured likes of “Thorazine Shuffle” as adeptly as they do the more open-ended improvisational approach of “Birth of The Mule.” Throughout the eleven cuts, the three man Mule demonstrate a grasp of dynamics that can only arise from such chemistry (though it can be, and eventually was honed by assiduous practice and roadwork).
The combination of Celtic and Indian strains within the acoustic arrangement of “Raven Black Night” are as striking as the silence within “Larger Than Life” which itself has an impact almost as resounding as that of the cacophonous “Blind Man in the Dark.” It’s worth noting too that on both songs, composer Warren Haynes vividly depicts a dark edgy persona that is of a piece with “I Shall Return.”
The aforementioned originals provide an ideal setting for this densely-layered cover of the Beatles’ “She Said, She Said,” where the instrumental coda ever-so-slightly teases that iconic band’s “Tomorrow Never Knows.” In the course of its history since this release, the band has often more overtly elaborated upon those themes in the live setting, but the restrained approach Gov’t Mule exhibits on this studio cut is emblematic of the judicious approach that makes Dose as successful as it is.
2. The Deep End Vols 1&2 (2001/2): It’s a tribute to Gov’t Mule’s innate sense of direction and self-discipline that, neither in the studio nor the stage, do they often rarely ends up sprawling in such a way they dilutes the purpose and focus of their work.
So it is that the two editions of The Deep End, released roughly a year apart, (both of which were issue in limited editions including an extra disc of live material as well as studio recordings) are comprised of largely original material tailored to the multiple bass players they enlisted in the wake of founding member Allen Woody’s untimely demise in 2000.
Still, apart from “Banks of The Deep end,” co-authored with Phish bassist Mike Gordon, few of the tunes speak directly to that tragedy (those would come later—see Deja Voodoo), but the process of incorporating more and different personnel during recording instead served as the healing. Future multi-instrumentalist Danny Louis makes his first appearance with the band during the course of this project (and, it should be noted, Woody appears posthumously on “Sin’s A Good Man’s Brother”).
The extended sessions took place in the wake of Warren Haynes and Matt Abts performing shows as a duo and found names like John Entwistle of the Who, Jack Bruce of Cream ( both now deceased) and Roger Glover of Deep Purple assuming the role of bass player on songs, respectively “Same Price,” “Fool’s Moon” and “Maybe I”m A Leo,” chosen specifically feature their unique styles of playing
At the same time, the incorporation of new musicians led directly to the composition of new songs, with somewhat more conventional structure, and the traversing of a more broad expanse of rock, country, blues and jazz (“Sco-Mule”) allowed Mule to move outside the power trio realm in which they were originally conceived without forsaking the visceral power of their earlier sound.
3. Life Before Insanity (2000): The third Gov’t Mule album suffers only slightly in comparison to its predecessor and that’s due to a simultaneous combination of outside material and track sequencing; this cover of Robert Johnson’s “If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day” is a bit too low-key to end the album. One of the more resounding tracks here (and eternal staples of the Mule repertoire), “Wandering Child,”.”Bad Little Doggie” or “No Need to Suffer” would’ve presented more finality
Warren Haynes’ slide guitar is the only overdubbing of his electric instrument during these dozen cuts, but Hook Herrera’s bluesy harp appears twice and there are keyboards in the mix as well courtesy Johnny Neel (subsequently a member of the reformed Allmans of 1989), both of which foreshadowing the expansion of arraignment that would become prevalent by necessity during The Deep End projec
Yet it’s the inclusion of two acoustic-based numbers, “Tastes Like Wine” and “In My Life,” that truly distinguish Life Before Insanity: this pair of tracks have a greater immediacy of sound than their electric surroundings and radiate more pure emotion as songs too. A fine piece of work on its own terms outside the Gov’t Mule oeuvre, this album’s now available only as a very high-price single item and as a two-disc import, ironically, in combination with Dose the record that immediately precedes and slightly overshadows it.
4. Gov’t Mule (1995): As much as Gov’t Mule accomplished on its eponymous debut album in roughly seventy-minutes, the band also planted the seeds for its evolution beyond the confines of the power trio, the concept of which they fully and completely resurrect with the likes of the blues-based “Mother Earth” and the album’s closer “World of Difference.”
The foundation of the Mule’s repertoire to this day lies in the sturdy likes of “Temporary Saint” and “Painted Silver Light,” while the instrumental “Trane” hints at the open-ended improvisational bent of their live shows from the very beginning. Faithful to Free’s arrangement of “Mr. Big,” they nevertheless take some liberties with it, while “Rocking Horse” found its way to the latter day Allman Brothers and for good reason: the latter segment of the solo section is tailor made for tandem harmony guitars.
Warren Haynes only suggests that attack here in the layered guitars, this spacious resonant mix from producer/engineer Michael Barbiero (who handled similar chores for the latter day ABB record Hittin’ the Note), captured at Bearsville Studios, is a logical extension of the groundwork Gov’t Mule laid so deceptively casually on The Tel-Star Sessions.
5. Deja Voodoo (incl. Mo’ Voodoo) (2004/5): For the long list of credits detailed on The Deep End releases, the name of Andy Hess, the man who ultimately solidified the ‘Rebirth of the Mule’ begun in 2004, is nowhere to be found. A veteran of the Black Crowes and John Scofield’s Uberjam lineup, Hess did tour with the Mule during the winter of 2003 before joining full-time to participate in the ambitious project that ultimately became Deja Voodoo.
The final album produced for the Mule by Michael Barbiero was expanded even further in the year after its initial release, with the inclusion of an EP of five songs recorded during tour breaks and released in May of 2005. The near-half hour of music dubbed Mo’ Voodoo might’ve benefited the album proper because it is simultaneously a reaffirmation and extension of the Mule’s previous work and the camaraderie of the four-man ensemble.
Warren Haynes originals like “I’ll Be The One” and covers of David Gray, Joe Henry and especially Van Morrison’s “Ballerina,” carry personal meaning that correlates to the superior tracks that close the album. Sounding like nothing so much as explicit emotional catharsis, “My Separate Reality” and “New World Blues,” would seem to offer some overt measure of closure on the passing of founding Mule member Allen Woody, both for author Haynes and drummer Matt Abts, his loyal partner in the continuation of Gov’t Mule in the wake of their partner’s unexpected passing.
The resounding climax of this near-two hour CD thus concludes a potent track sequencing that exhibits the tangible ebb and flow of a truly memorable live performance, such a direct reflection of (the new) Gov’t Mule’s focus and fire, it leaves an absolutely indelible impression.
6. Shout! (2013): Gov’t Mule’s debut on Blue Note Records is a seamless piece reminiscent of their best work on stage and in the studio. “World Boss” sets a hard rock tone for Shout! That while it still reflects the band’s grasp of dynamics and discipline, nevertheless maintains a vicious edge
Shout! has its share of color, in the form of cuts such as a emotive ballad “Scared to Live,” where an extended instrumental coda artfully amplifies the mood of the words. Gov’t Mule recapitulates its core strengths without repeating itself through the course of these eleven tracks, which may have been the source of the idea to invite multiple vocalists to create an alternate version of the album.
On that second disc, the same instrumental tracks, all featuring different singers, are sequenced slightly differently, to varying effect. My Morning Jacket’s Jim James brings his openness and vulnerability to “Captured,” while Steve Winwood imbues “When the World Gets Small” with passionate soul, both cuts imparting the sense they were arranged with those individual singers in mind.
So while, Grace Potter, Ben Harper, Dr. John and Elvis Costello also guest on respective tracks of Shout! CD two, those two superior sit-ins would in and of themselves constitute sufficiently novel marketing for this new precisely because the work of Gov’t Mule itself stands on its own terms.
7. By A Thread (2009): Gov’t Mule’s By A Thread might be the closest thing to a Warren Haynes solo effort ever released under the aegis of the band. The album’s hour-plus running time contains every individual element of style favored by the titular leader of the band, but the whole remains unusually fragmented sound for a group customarily so unyielding in its purpose and focus.
This recording’s title in fact, might refer to the infinitesimal degree of separation between the work of an single artist and that of a full-fledged unit. As cleanly captured by producer Gordie Johnson, Gov’t Mule wouldn’t work so well however, if keyboardist Danny Louis, drummer Matt Abts and newly recruited bassist Jorgen Carlsson were merely backing Warren Haynes. Still, “Inside Outside Woman Blues #3,” is redundant after the dirty Texas blues such as the opener “Broke Down on the Brazos” (with ZZ Top’s guitarist extraordinaire Billy Gibbons).
“Scenes From A Troubled Mind” which wouldn’t work so effectively either if the four-piece were not in sync with each other as well as Haynes and, likewise, on the subdued “World Wake Up,” his pondering on the state of the world might sound precious were it not for the stately gait of the band. So, By A Thread furthers the credibility of the band, individually and collectively, but only in a minor increment.
8. High & Mighty (2006): The sound of High & Mighty hits home immediately as its massive mix reverberates even at low volume at the same time it radiates a sense of how much fun these four men have when they play together. But the brains undermine the brawn here a bit as the topical concerns to some degree become overshadowed by the power of the band and the recording.
Overseen by Gordie Johnson in his debut as Mule producer, these sessions done at Willie Nelson’s studio in Austin, Texas resulted in an eclectic approach to the material for this new Mule, incorporating reggae, country and funk strains, in addition to the ever-present Led Zeppelin influence that borders on the derivative here in the form of “Streamline Woman.”
With even its tongue-in-cheek cover worth a second look, High and Mighty is worth savoring on a number of levels because, for much of its seventy minutes, the thought processes and musicianship at work within the songs are as clear as the audio itself. As a result, tracks such as “Unring the Bell,” “Like Flies” and “Mr. High and Mighty” are almost worth hearing as much for the observations in the lyrics as the instrumental detail in the sonics.
9. Mighty High (2007): Hearing a Gov’t Mule reggae album is no big surprise if you’ve seen the band with any regularity over the years, so there’s little doubt Mighty High will appeal to devout Muleheads, not-quite-so-rabid reggae fans, and anyone fascinated by production technique.
But make no mistake, this should not be considered a full-fledged Mule album, despite its sixty-seven minutes length. It consists of rearranged Mule material, cover interpretations and somewhat elaborate production combining previously recorded live tracks sculpted to suit the concept of the record. Careful repeated listening will reveal a logical flow to the baker’s dozen tracks, but the novelty aspect still remains.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the cover material represents the most ingenious inclusions. Originally conceived for a tribute to The Band, “The Shape I’m In” is as true to the spirit of New Orleans as it is Kingston, Jamaica. Gov’t Mule and collaborator Gordie Johnson of Canadian rockers Big Sugar literally mix a live recording of The Rolling Stones’ “Play with Fire” with studio effects surrounding the (inevitable) appearance of Spearhead’s Michael Franti. But Otis Redding’s “Hard to Handle” (the Black Crowes’ first hit and a regular inclusion in Grateful Dead setlists during the Pigpen era) sounds most natural in the Mighty High context, perhaps because guest Toots Hibbert sounds so enthused himself.
Grounded as it is in a genuine musical fascination of bandleader Haynes—who, from the stage, once referred to Bob Marley as “the last true prophet”— this CD is far more than just mere indulgence, because it’s produced with painstaking care, while still retaining the charged atmosphere of a good live jam. The overall beauty of it, however, is in the headphones of the beholder.
Stay tuned next week where we will cover Govt Mule’s live releases..