The more Gov’t Mule endures, the more it seems to sound even more like itself: a blues-rock animal and jamband by genre classification, but a wickedly improvisational, guitar-slicing, jazz-dusted, folk-injected, funk- and reggae-tasting beast proudly defiant of one tag or another. The joy in Mule fandom is because of the musicianship, but also that eclecticism: the range of styles brought to bear and the nerve and verve to execute on each of them, and blend them, without falling prey to the jack-of-all-trades/master-of-none trap.
Boy, have they come along way. Conceived as an Allman Brothers Band side project some 16 years ago – guitar legend Warren Haynes and drum master Matt Abts are still Mule’s pistons – it took some time for the band to overcome the untimely death of bassist Allen Woody in 2000. As the story went, Haynes and Abts turned their grief into experimentation – the wondrously varied Deep End projects, with a range of bassists, and the addition of keyboardist Danny Louis in the period between 2000 and 2003, and then settled into a new era of Mule with bassist Andy Hess, only to part ways with Hess in 2008 and take up Jorgen Carlsson, a meaty, flexible player who’s brought some of that hard-charging, aggressive low-end back to the Mule, reminiscent of the Woody days.
What’s remarkable, though, isn’t only that they survived and thrived (when you’re a band led by a well-documented workhorse like Haynes, what do you do but work, play and grow)? No, it’s that they’ve also retained all, and not muddled any of the hallmarks that made them Mule and helped them gain a following in the first place: Haynes’ howling soul, Abts’ protean drumwork, the eclectic styles, the potent, focused jamming, the frequent sit-in guests as part of an extended family of players that make Mule only nominally four players.
The band’s latest New Year’s Eve adventure, which returned them, as has been the custom since 2002, to New York’s venerable Beacon Theater, had all of those things in spades. That was the intention, it seemed. Mule, on the cusp of a sort-of-hiatus for the year 2011, offered an evening titled “Get Behind the Mule: Past Present and Future,” in which it solicited fan requests for Mule originals and hoped-for covers. No one was quite sure what that meant; the band obliged most expectations with a survey of its history: a video, featuring photos and video of the old days, set to “A Million Miles from Yesterday”, followed by a set and a half of choice cuts from each of the studio albums.
It was a thorough execution, if a bit pedestrian at times. The Mule fans that show for New Year’s Eve and other Mule community-centric events like Warren Haynes’ Mountain Jam festival aren’t casual passsersby; they’re the Mule-initiated who at a show like this would maybe trade hearing strong, but overplayed newer cuts “Broke Down on the Brazos” and “Steppin’ Lightly” for the 30th time live for a back-catalog gem like “World of Difference” or “Fool’s Moon” or “Life On the Outside”. Those are minor carps, not complaints; Mule, in the live setting, executes as consistently and with as such heart and soul as any live band touring today. But carps they are, nonetheless.
Familiarity with such often-played Mule songs did make for some softness in the early innings of the show (no word on whether this was simply Mule playing the favorite Mule songs requested, and the requested just happened to be its best-known, most-often-played material). But there were also welcome reminders of why a lot of these songs hold up. Early in Set 1 came “Game Face”, which starts in briny cynicism, bleeds into a slightly sunnier, more mellow tone with a psychedelic jam segment, and then roars, nastily, back into its earlier form. “No Need to Suffer”, on the other hand – one of Mule’s greatest songs – starts out ominous and gives no such mellow respite. In fact, it ends up terrifying, with the narrative, being about healing or suicide or something else, wiped away as the rhythm section builds to a thrilling gallop and Haynes’ guitar takes over. It’s wonderful, cathartic stuff.
Later, among other highs, came the lament “Banks of the Deep End” – obliquely, but unmistakably about Woody – and another triumph from that same era of Mule songwriting. “Time to Confess”, which builds from cautionary, dark-toned reggae about guilt and paranoia into a gnarly display of guitar fireworks – tonally, a shift from regretful to burn-down-the-house angry. Both songs? Powerhouse-level.
The second set shifted toward more contemporary Mule songs, with one or two a piece from 2004’s Deja Voodoo, 2006’s High & Mighty and 2009’s By a Thread. Then came the new years’ eve countdown, balloon drop and a slate of fresh and exciting covers, another Mule New Year’s Eve custom.
Zeppelin’s “Achilles Last Stand” – according to Haynes, the number one requested Mule cover in the fan vote – was a swarthy blast, and while Robin Trower’s “Bridge of Sighs” siphoned off some of the energy, it was quickly restored thanks to Mountain’s “Nantucket Sleighride” (with a blink-and-you-missed it sit-in by Mountain’s own Corky Laing on Abts’ kit), a burning “Bad Company” and a rambunctiously fun, howling take on the Beatles’ “Yer Blues”. Mule wears so many different styles of music so well, and covers others’ songs so well and so often that it’s as much an interpretation band as it is an original, jazz-inflected blues-rock band. Haynes’ stated philosophy has long been that a great song is a great song; the more covered, even if it gets exhausting sometimes, the merrier.
If Set 2 bridged the distance between the march of Mule classics and a comfortable segue into the covers segment, Set 3 tossed out any idea of pacing and opened the format to more of a workshop session. It wasn’t so much a full set of music as a collection of four jam segments, none shorter than 10 minutes and all played with an electrifying, who-gives-a-shit-what-time-it-is abandon. Guests, another common Mule occurrence, filtered on and off, including Bill Evans, the protean saxophonist who’s sat in with the Mule and the Allman Brothers band quite often over the past year, longtime New York-based guitar ace Jon Herington, best known for his work with Steely Dan, and Oz Noy, in the first rank of under-discovered jazz-funk guitarists.
Each seems to share the spirit of collaboration and spontaneity favored by the Mule, and none was hesitant, as is sadly so often the case with sit-in guests, to inject himself. The set started in Grateful Dead territory – oh, that ever-malleable Dead catalog with which Haynes has a long and complicated history –with a romp, guest-less, through “Shakedown Street”, and found its way to a sprawling “Sugaree”, right in Evans’ wheelhouse of that space where Americana jazz and slow-groove country link arms.
Better still was when Haynes, Louis, Herington and Evans tore into the groovy, acid-jazz insanity of Mule’s own “Sco-Mule”, and then replaced Herington with Noy for a moody, psychedelic reading of “Afro Blue”, the Mongo Santamaria classic commonly associated with John Coltrane, and a blessed event for Mule fans on rare occasion of its airing.
The band seemed to have hit a peak, but just like that, it was all over: a happy new year salute from Haynes, a stage departure, house lights, and done. It was late – 2:30 am – and speculation ran rampant in the tired audience that they’d simply blown way by their allotted time and scrapped part of the third set plan in favor of kicking out the jams. But it felt full; it felt like an event. In the days proceeding, with time to process, it felt even more like a weird, wild Mule-led spectacular that favored all of the band’s strengths without being too ostentatious about things.
Gov’t Mule will spend 2011 largely off the road, and they’ve earned it. If there are cracks, they don’t show; if there’s fatigue, it hasn’t manifested; and if there’s any perception of inter-band tension precipitating the break, it’s unfounded. Long live the Mule.