Warren Haynes and Gov’t Mule are all about getting down to business tonight. When the band came through Austin to play Stubbs a year ago, they were co-headlining their Texas run with the Disco Biscuits and therefore played only one set. The band seems intent on maximizing output here, as they hit the stage for their first set before the clock has even hit nine PM. There’s a large crowd of “Muleheads” on hand, with still more waiting to get in, stalled by the bottleneck caused by the surprising early start.
The longtime Allman Brothers Band guitarist will turn 50 this year, with Gov’t Mule turning 15 and earning a growing legend of its own. It’s been a slow but steady ascent for Haynes, so it’s hard to pinpoint exactly when the Mule started being thought of in a similar light to his work with the Allmans (and The Dead). Being named by Rolling Stone as one of the top 25 guitarists of all time probably helped, but as a road warrior who lives to deliver the blues, it was only a matter of time. While other bands take breaks, Gov’t Mule seems to just keep on touring.
The unmistakably deep bluesy tone of Haynes’ slide guitar fills the air early on as the band gets warmed up. “Banks of the Deep End” dips further into the blues well, as Haynes switches back to his trusty Les Paul for some really sweet tone on the song’s guitar fills. A cover of Tom Waits’ “Get Behind the Mule” gets the crowd behind the Mule indeed, with the band shifting tone into a dirtier blues rock. Longtime drummer Matt Abts is a powerhouse as always, with the chemistry between himself and newer bassist Jorgen Carlsson progressively growing. Keyboardist Danny Louis adds another element to what used to be a power trio, maximizing the band’s sonic capabilities.
“Bad Little Doggie” keeps the Mule train speeding down the track, although the bass sounds distractingly muddy, and I wonder if I am too close to the stage. The show is somewhat average so far, highlighting the challenge of keeping things fresh when you’re leading an improv-oriented blues rock band that tours constantly but doesn’t have as deep a repertoire as a band that’s been around since the ‘60s.
But a certain vibe starts to build during “I Think You Know What I Mean” from the band’s 2001 album Life Before Insanity, with Haynes tapping into a socially conscious anger at injustice that has long set him apart from other blues pretenders. As he sings lyrics that seem to rage at Ronald Reagan’s disingenuous politics, the bluesy undercurrent of the evening starts to simmer. The song goes into a Led Zeppelin sounding jam, which indeed morphs into the Led Zep classic, “When the Levee Breaks”. The power trio aspect of the band ignites here, with Haynes, Abts and Carlsson conjuring the majestic strength of the mighty Zep at a masterful level, much to the joy of the assembled. This catalyzes the crowd-band feedback loop that drives any great rock ‘n’ roll band. The song then segues back into “I Think You Know What I Mean”, using “Levee” to put an extra stamp on the song’s message.
The Mule are generally known for throwing a couple of hot covers into their shows, but it seems like Stubbs is becoming particularly known as a venue to throw down classic rock covers from the ‘70s, always appreciated by the college town crowd. Two songs later, the band returns to the Zeppelin catalogue for a stunning rendition of “No Quarter” that mesmerizes the crowd. It’s here that keyboardist Louis proves invaluable; he sets the tone with an eerie, psychedelic flavor that opens the tune before the rest of the band comes crashing in for one of the night’s most electrifying jams to close the set. Haynes really cuts loose during the guitar solo, where he seems to be channeling Jimi Hendrix more than Jimmy Page, which only drives the energy of the smoking jam higher. This leaves the crowd eager for more during the standard set break. My friend laments that he never got to see Led Zeppelin live, but suggests that there’s probably no other band that can cover the mighty Zep as authentically as Gov’t Mule. After what we just witnessed, it’s a point that’s hard to debate.
Haynes always shines a soulful light with “Beautifully Broken”, and so it is here for an early highlight in the second set. The muddy bass proves to be a problem once again though. Moving more toward the center of the venue is an antidote, although that’s tough space to come by with the jam-packed crowd. The surprise highlight of the night soon follows when the Mule is joined by guitarist Gordy Johnson, who also produced the band’s newest album By a Thread, recorded at Willie Nelson’s Pedernales Studio in the nearby Texas Hill Country.
Johnson is Canadian, but he sure looks like a Texan with a cowboy hat, surly vibe and bad-ass double neck guitar. The band rips through Robert Johnson’s seminal “32/20 Blues” with Haynes and Johnson swapping licks to the crowd’s delight. The energy flows into “Broke Down on the Brazos”, the lead track from By a Thread that features ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons on the studio version. The Texas synergy really comes alive here, with the crowd roaring its approval when Haynes sings “Told everybody I believe I’m Texas-bound / Here I am!” The electrifying jam that takes place here is truly something to behold, with Haynes and Johnson delving into some Allmans-style twin guitar leads, but with the even grittier blues flavor that is the Mule’s stock in trade.
Most of the band exits on this highlight, leaving Abts to deliver the standard big rock drum solo. The band soon returns and continues rocking out on “Mr. Big”, which becomes a showcase for bassist Jorgen Carlsson. As the jam builds, Carlsson takes over with some Chris Squire-style melodic runs straight out of the Yes playbook, and which sound so good driving a bluesy rocker like this one into one of the night’s best jams. It’s another peak highlight as Carlsson shows just how deep his skills go.
Haynes pulls out a stylish 12-string Les Paul for “So Weak So Strong”, from 2006’s underrated High & Mighty, and uses it to conjure a Beatles-esque vibe along the lines of “Dear Prudence”. When Haynes sings of “Finding courage when all hope is lost,” one can’t help but feel inspired. It’s the penultimate moment of the set, with Mule classic “Thorazine Shuffle” following to close the set. Sometimes the song can start to feel like an old warhorse that is over-relied on, but its placement here is dynamite. The band is on fire, the crowd is surging and there’s a charged energy from the opening moment that leads to a monster jam to close out the show in triumphant style.
The first encore of “A Million Miles from Home” provides a melodic catharsis, with Haynes singing about the quest to find his way home. He follows with the almost obligatory “Soul Shine”, his own anthemic contribution to the Allman Brothers Band repertoire. The tune never fails to be a crowd pleaser and it gets the whole audience singing tonight. Potential rain forecast earlier in the week has held off, making this another beautiful night in Austin.