Last week we counted down Gov’t Mule’s studio LPs from strongest on down and this week we do the same with their live LPs. As one of the most courageous and enduring live acts of our time, Gov’t Mule has gone from power trio to expanded quartet to hosting performance where anything is game from special guests, cover songs and down-right ambitious themes. Never a band to short-change itself and not give the audience 105%, here we go with the strongest on down of the live collection..
Gov’t Mule From the Stage
1. LIVE…With A Little Help From Our Friends-Collector’s Edition (2007): This set may very well be the jewel of the Gov’t Mule discography because, quite simply, in the course of its four CDs and four-hours plus running time, the breadth of music comprehensively documents the virtues of the band in its original incarnation and, at the same time, solidifies an open-ended attitude to guest sit-ins during live performance that the group maintains to this day.
The inclusion of the heart of their early repertoire, erects a foundation in the form of the pounding “Wandering Child” counterbalanced by the atmospheric likes of “No Need to Suffer.” A comparably broad expanse of cover material, from Little Feat’s “Spanish Moon” to Dave Mason’s “Sad And Deep As You,” effectively feature the skills of the long roster of like-minded players who share the stage with the trio, including Derek Trucks, Chuck Leavell and Jimmy Herring. But the presence of Parliament/Funkadelic keyboardist Bernie Worrell and saxophonist and multi-instrumentalist Randall Bramblett (a member of Sea Level as well as latter-day Traffic lineups), aid in authentically illustrating the eclectic influences of r&b and soul with the Mule’s palette.
Not surprisingly, a genuine spontaneity permeates these often densely populated interactions and that provides free rein to all those involved, at any given time, so they and the Mule can luxuriate within improvisations and/or stylistic change-ups. Over the course of the whole show, this sequence of events creates the compelling ebb and flow of all truly great live performances.
Still available at a decent price in this limited edition package (and also available in double and single CD sets bereft of seven extended tracks exclusive to the collector’s version), LIVE…With A Little Help From Our Friends would explicate how Gov’t Mule elicits such rabid devotion from its most loyal followers,
2. The Georgia Bootleg Box (2006): With an appropriately-designed but eye-catching package that mirrors its title inside and out, The Georgia Bootleg Box documents the process by which the original Gov’t Mule trio, two years into its existence, was well on its way towards its mission of fine-tuning a repertoire that, even today, in its third formal incarnation, provides a stable foundation for the group.
The overlap of songs in setlists that represent three consecutive performances in 1996 is but a superficial blemish, the only apparent shortfall of the six disc set. Likewise, the occasional imperfections of the recordings themselves are to a great degree rendered insignificant by Greg Calbi’s expert mastering), rand thus no more than minor imperfections at worst in the overall context of these now two-decade old concerts.
Guitarist/vocalist Haynes, joining forces with the with Matt Abts on drums and the late Allen Woody on bass, are captured here finding new ways to segue in and out of tunes, rediscovering and reinventing their own material, like “Temporary Saint” and “Painted Silver Light,” not to mention covers such as “Going Out West.” All of this furious but smartly dynamic interplay, not coincidentally quite obvious on “Birth of the Mule,” is the means by which the three musicians are executing the fundamental concept of Gov’t Mule as a contemporary version of the power trio as originated by Cream and The Jimi Hendrix Experience (the latter receives direct homage in a tease of “Third Stone from the Sun,”)
The tradition of guests, high profile and otherwise, finds germination here too in the notable person of Derek Trucks (roughly five years hence destined to be a guitar partner of Haynes in ABB): the wunderkind guitarist tears into the bluesy likes of “Send You Back to Georgia,” among others, on successive nights. There are other exemplary documents of Gov’t Mule in concert, but with each passing year beyond the demise of the original trio, The Georgia Bootleg Box gains further eminence in the increasingly lengthy discography of the band.
3. Gov’t Mule Featuring John Scofield- Sco-Mule (2015): Five years into their career, Gov’t Mule, in its initial configuration of guitarist/vocalist Warren Haynes, bassist Allen Woody and drummer Matt Abts, began to alternately fine-tune and expand their approach to jamming by commencing a collaboration with guitarist John Scofield with a pair of appearances in Georgia in September 1999.
Approximately two hours running time on two CDs, Sco-Mule contains the bulk, though not all, of the live performances, including not just originals from Gov’t Mule (“Birth of the Mule”) and Scofield (“Hottentot”), but a remarkable range of covers all the way from James Brown (“Pass the Peas”) to saxophonist/composer extraordinaire Wayne Shorter (“Tom Thumb”).
The musicians match their courage in tackling such a diversity of material with a fearless willingness to stretch out, plus a sharply intuitive ability to react to each other in the moment. On Mongo Santamaria’s “Afro Blue,” for instance, the unit goes to the twenty-three minute mark plus, sounding, in turns, elegant, funky and spacey. The sound quality of the recording captures the immediacy of an unusual combination of relaxation and inspiration evinced by these musicians.
Even though bootleg recordings of comparable clarity were in circulation for years, the sequence of events leading to the official release of Sco-Mule circuitous: the untimely death of Woody in 2000 put the release on hold while Gov’t Mule reconfigured itself. But as the band hit its twentieth anniversary in 2014, the recordings were exhumed to be mixed and mastered for a package distinguished with annotations from Haynes and Scofield themselves and adorned with a striking piece of artwork, in sum creating that ever-so-rare high-profile meeting of minds that exceeds expectations (subsequently duplicated on the supporting tour of winter 2015).
4. The Deepest End -Live in Concert (CD/DVD) (2003):The eclectic range of influences on The Deepest End was a direct reflection of the array of players who participated in the corresponding studio sessions and, in reality, continued the inclusive approach begun on the New year’s run of 1998, as captured in full on the four-disc collector’s edition of with A Little Help From Our Friends. Gov’t Mule brought the culmination of this transitional period of their career, following the death of founder/bassist Allen Woody, to an even more expansive approach here in this six hour-plus combo disc package.
Recorded in New Orleans’ Saenger Theatre the very next year of 2003 after the studio sessions, the breadth of choice in material ranged from culls of early Mule such as “Game Face” and”Blind Man in the Dark” to new covers, selections of which were designed, at least in part, to accommodate guests of the Mule; for instance, bassist Conrad Lozano and guitarist David Hidalgo of Los Lobos, had regularly performed Cream’s “Politician,” with their own group, so its relative familiarity accentuated the spontaneity of this event (many of the musicians met each other for the first time the day of this marathon concert).
Interweaving various patterns in the growth of Gov’t Mule on The Deep End project no doubt brought as much closure to Haynes and Abts as it nurtured confidence in their ability to carry on successfully in the wake of losing their friend and bandmate. It’s to their further great credit they were, at the same time, continuing the natural evolution of the band and also maintaining the visceral impact of their music.
5. Live @ Roseland Ballroom (Expanded) (2007): In both its original 1996 version and the expanded reissue, Gov’t Mule’s long out-of-print Live at Roseland Ballroom (in actuality, the group’s second formal album release), stands as a template for Gov’t’ Mule’ approach to live performance. Most of the material is a means to the end of lengthy improvisations, and remains an integral part of the group’s repertoire even today, with the group now having been reconfigured twice as a quartet.
As the opening act for Blues Traveler on New Years Eve in 1995, the trio draws from a wide diversity of influences during a series of expansive improvisations. Gov’t Mule hammers the metallic riff of “Painted Silver Light” as deftly as it navigates the lilting likes of Warren Haynes’ collaboration with Dickey Betts, “Kind of Bird,” a selection from the Allman Brothers repertoire (during this period when he and co-founder Allen Woody were doing double duty with ABB and Mule).
As documented on the third studio album, Life Before Insanity, the band as originally conceived was moving towards instrumental expansion beyond that lineup when Woody died in 2000, and that same progression appears here on a fifteen-minute plus bonus track recorded at this same venue, albeit five years later. A slow blues and wah-wah workout on Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile,” finds Jefferson Airplane/Hot Tuna bassist Jack Casady, a participant on that original recording of Jimi’s (from Electric Ladyland), moving in and around Haynes, Abts and organist Chuck Leavell.
This addendum to the original Live at Roseland Ballroom recording may be its least interesting track, but, at its fifteen-minutes plus length, it does flesh out the CD to over seventy-minutes and additionally serves the purpose of connecting the modern-day Mule to its roots, a goal wholly laudable and completely fulfilled in this package.
6. Mulennium (2010): The first true archival project ever released by Gov’t Mule, accurately timed for debut in the general time-frame of the loss of bassist Allen Woody a decade prior, Mulennium was recorded at the cusp of the millennium on New Year’s Eve 1999-2000. Sounding as splendid as it looks, this triple-disc package stands as a virtual blueprint for the band’s music throughout its redoubtable career on the road and in the recording studio.
This complete show of Gov’t Mule’s appearance as the Roxy Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia may or may not have been designed to accentuate the groups’ scope and strength, but that’s the function it serves. Staples of their repertoire book-end the three hours plus of playing in the form of originals like “Bad Little Doggie” and “Blind Man in the Dark,” while covers of other artists’ material, a reliable a component of their sets from the start, appear on Mulennium in the diverse forms of Humble Pie’s “30 Days in the Hole,” The Beatles’ “Helter Skelter,” and wry take on Alice Cooper’s “Is It My Body” The bleak prophecies of Y2K made the inclusion of King Crimson’s “21st Century Schizoid Man” and Led Zeppelin’s “Dazed and Confused” wholly appropriate (and bone-crushing).
Yet the emotional peaks of the performance arrive during appearance of bluesman Little Milton, during which time the Mule become accompanists as redoubtable as the man they’re supporting, on numbers including “I Can’t Quit You Baby” and “It Hurts Me Too.” This second disc of Mulennium is thus as listenable on its own terms as in the context of the three-cd package, the first and third discs of which offer an accurate take on a band that’s traversed more ground in its lifetime than many artists do in twice as many years.
7. Dark Side of The Mule (2014): Recorded on the second night of bassist Jorgen Carlsson’s tenure with the group, the set from Boston’s Orpheum Theater on Halloween of 2008 is ultimately as much of a tribute to the late original member of Mule , Allen Woody, as the British group’s “Wish You Were Here” is a tribute to founding guitarist/songwriter Syd Barrett.
The shadowy likes of these tunes are of a piece with Mule originals as presented on the deluxe set of three CD’s, while the choices of Floyd material, extending all the way back to Meddle, erect a cogent musical statement. In a respite from an ominous air the quartet conjures overall, wholly in keeping with the holiday of masquerade, the triptych from Dark Side of the Moon.“Breathe (in the Air),” “Time” and the crowd-pleasing “Money” all carry sentiments in line with a Gov’t Mule ethos that’s now lasted two decades.
In a direct reflection of the music inside, the graphic design of Dark Side of the Mule includes smart variations on both Pink Floyd and Gov’t Mule iconography, as well as a book of photos, full credits and an essay by Warren Haynes who proudly declares the extent to which the band prepped for this show with laser-lights and surround sound that are not part of their customarily no-frills stage production in sum dismissing any notion this unique performance is a novelty.
8. Dub Side of the Mule (2015): Dub Side of the Mule deserves its release in recognition of Gov’t Mule’s twenty-year anniversary in 2014. Their New Year’s 2006 appearance at the Beacon Theatre within this complete package of three CD’s plus a DVD stands a turning point in their career because, in contrast to previous appearances at the Broadway venue, a litany of guests morphed into a theme show the likes of which the group has continued ever since.
Additional guests in the evening’s finale include Gregg Allman and Friends plus Blues Traveler’s John Popper, but the hosts reassert their own collective persona on (then recently-deceased )James Brown’s “It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World,” then fully affirm their roots on the straight blues of Elmore James’ “It Hurts Me Too,” before riffing to a furious close with Tom Waits “Goin’ Out West.”
Clearly, Gov’t Mule gave no short shrift to their own songs during these three sets, but the level of surprise that has always earmarked their concerts becomes evident with two Otis Redding songs, “Hard to Handle” and “I’ve Got Dreams to Remember” as well as Al Green’s “I’m A Ram” and the R & B warhorse “Turn on Your Lovelight.” the authenticity of which, not to mention the attendant preparation, derives from the presence of horns and backup vocalists.
Remastered for both on video and 5.1 surround audio (and not much less impressive in the high quality sound on the CD’s), the video captures the palpable delight apparent in the body language and countenances of all involved.
9. Holy Haunted House (2008): It’s hardly a surprise that Gov’t Mule performed Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy (Atlantic, 1973) in its entirety in sequence on Halloween, 2007. The legendary British band is one of the most profound influences on The Mule, and while they have artfully disguised themselves for other Halloween celebrations, the only time they have played another artist’s album in its entirety was 2010 when the band rendered the whole of Who’s Next.
A tribute to Gov’t Mule’s collective professionalism, instrumental expertise and honest love of music, Holy Haunted House might be a bonafide tour de force except that the group sounds a little too careful a little too often here. That said, Warren Haynes’ guttural vocals infuse that soporific ballad “The Rain Song” with gravity and soul, effectively offsetting how he relishes the heavy riffing of “Over the Hills and Far Away.”
Mule finishes this second eighty minutes of the night with blues in the form of Robert Johnson’s “Come in My Kitchen” and Howlin’ Wolf’s “32/30 Blues,” (which may or may not be commentary on accusations of Zeppelin rip-offs), but the opening set on 10-31-2007 also carried potency and its own internal logic.
“Birth of the Mule” contains a finesse that also fosters a seamless transition from “Larger Than Life” into “Fallen Down” while “The Other One Jam,” based upon the Grateful Dead’s long-standing improvisational vehicle, is equally deft and most representative of this special occasion at the O’Shaughnessy Theatre in St. Paul, Minnesota.
10. Mule On Easy Street 10-19-2006 (2006): Taken from one of the in-store appearances Gov’t Mule did in the fall of 2006 in support of High and Mighty. this 45-plus minute recording is a solid if ultimately unexciting performance. The quartet mixes Little Milton’s “That’s What Love Will Make You Do” with culls from the (at the time) new album like “Million Miles From Yesterday” and “Unring The Bell,” each of which actually sound superior outside the context of that studio effort.
The dub-influenced arrangement of the latter, in fact, provides dovetails particularly smoothly to a reggae version of Warren Haynes’ signature song, “Soulshine,” which the author and the group render with more potency than they often do in more formal concert presentations. Initially available only from independent retail records stores, the collectible quotient here may outweigh the musical value, so it’s true value may like in its attraction for completist Muleheads.