Music Preview: Surprises on the ‘Mule’ Train

Gov't Mule

Gov’t Mule

Warren Haynes can work with anyone he wants … and everyone wants to work with him. During a recent chat, the frontman for Gov’t Mule said that a particularly busy year could have him playing guitar and/or singing with 30 to 40 different outfits, if you’re tallying guest spots, tours he’s recruited for (one watershed year had him playing leads for both Phil Lesh & Friends and The Allman Brothers Band) and impromptu jams.

Ah, jamming. Gov’t Mule’s been one of the best at making that specialty work without percussion distractions or other frippery. Originally a power trio, the 2000 death of bassist Allen Woody led to a creatively fruitful experimental phase that included adding a fourth member on keyboards. They’re on tour following release of the album High & Mighty, and play on Friday at the Palace, with professional-surfer-cum-acclaimed-folk-rocker Donavon Frankenreiter opening.

Haynes is a fascinating figure. The course of his career has laid musical paradoxes on him, but he shoulders them ably. For instance, his understated reaction to getting pulled onto all manner of stages is “Keeps you on your toes. I enjoy the challenge.”

A lot of Gov’t Mule’s music has a foundation of blues-rock in its most meat-and-potatoes simplicity. On the new record, “Streamline Woman” and “Nothing Again” update Free, even down to some Paul Rodgers in Haynes’ singing. But onstage, from extended covers to some freewheeling ska variants, the quartet dances confidently into territory usually commanded by larger ensembles that cut and paste from jazz or worldbeat.

Haynes has been rewarded for challenging himself: Rolling Stone put him 23rd on its all-time best guitarists list, just ahead of The Edge. But he began as a singer, and he says he relishes the rare chances to put the guitar away and hold the mic in both hands (“… middle set at New Year’s Eve show, where every year we try to surprise the audience. Last year, we did 90 minutes of soul music.”)

But Louisville’s upcoming show isn’t New Year’s Eve. Are they varying the sets even now?
Haynes jumps on that question: “Drastically. We keep a logbook. When we go to a market, we go back to the log and see what we’ve played in that area in the past. We make sure that the new show is very different. And that’s only as far as what ends up on the setlist,” he said. “Sometimes the set(list) is just a guidepost … we do audibles all the time.”

The last time he shook up an audience with a cover choice, it was “the Stevie Nicks song ‘Gold Dust Woman.’ The way we played it, it’s very moody at first. The audience reaction was like, some people seemed to recognize the tune but wondered if we were going to go all the way into it … thinking, ‘Maybe they’re just teasing it.’”

Haynes and his Gov’t Mule brethren just aren’t the teasing type. They’re committed soldiers of the road, which is probably why this homecoming is a frequent theme in Haynes’ everyman-with-soul songwriting.

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