Having met during an extensive tenure with the Allman Brothers Band, guitarist/vocalist Warren Haynes and bassist Allen Woody developed a fast friendship and musical kinship. With the Allmans mothballed for most of 1994, the pair recruited drummer Matt Abts from the Dickey Betts Band and retreated to Brandon, Florida. There, the trio cut material that forms this collection.
The trio was enamored of Cream, Mountain, Free and the like, preferring the dirty, gritty rock that had largely fallen from favor by the year that Nirvana came to an end and Lisa Loeb ascended the charts.
Like-minded acts were also rising at the time. Phish’s prowess as a live act had begun to earn the Vermont quartet accolades. Blues Traveler stood at the forefront of a mini-movement that included a H.O.R.D.E. of backward-gazing and forward-thinking groups. Each of these acts and their many friends would soon shape the future of rock music. Haynes, Abts, and Woody couldn’t know that when they entered Tel-Star to record this material. They hunkered down with Bud Snyder, sound engineer for the Allmans, and hoped to record a low-key album, release it and toss back a couple shows.
That album would have included a smattering of originals and covers that spoke to the group’s roots. It wasn’t to be, though, because by the time the sessions wound down and word reached the wider world about how good GM was, there was a call for a more polished debut. That 1995 self-titled release contains versions of several pieces tracked the year before. But it and many subsequent Mule releases hold neither the innocence nor energy heard here.
“Blind Man in the Dark” heralds the arrival of a lean, attitude-driven blues-rock machine. Haynes’ guitar rips and shreds the listener’s inner core while the Woody/Abts axis quickly reveals itself as one of the most dangerous rhythm sections in the history of rock. Woody proves himself equal to four-string gods such as Jack Bruce and Andy Fraser within a few measures. Haynes, who probably doesn’t earn enough accolades for his singing, sounds like one of the freshest and most grounded voices of his generation. And, yes, that’s just the first track.
Haynes also proves himself a more than capable double for then-boss Gregg Allman via “Rocking Horse”, scorches the earth via “Monkey Hill” and channels Bridge of Sighs-era Robin Trower with the eerie, ethereal “World of Difference”. (There are two versions here, the second serving as a bonus track with the original mix restored.)
The internally-penned numbers offer plenty of treasure but there are several brilliant and revealing covers, including Free’s “Mr. Big”. Faithful to a point, the track nearly crushes the original under its boots, grinding deep into the soil of 1994 with a groove that would become a Mule trademark. A reading of Willie Dixon’s “The Same Thing” marries an appropriate level of reverence with a high dose of devil-may-care, an approach that Cream took with Robert Johnson’s material.
Haynes and Woody once more prove themselves masters of their craft via a jaw-dropping take on ZZ Top’s “Just Got Paid”. All that made the original great is present in this version: Playing that crawls from the earth and into your ear with soulful and sweet slither, vocals that spit like bullets and an overall immediacy that keeps the listener rap for all four minutes and 23 seconds. It’s amplified here, though, made more visceral, the way rock in the decades after punk can’t help being.
Add to this a daring take on Memphis Slim’s “Mother Earth” and “Left Coast Groove”, a track filled with tenacity and boastful strut, and you have the makings of a game-changing debut. Too bad we had to wait 22 years to hear it but better that we got to hear it at all than having it slip into the ages unappreciated.
Archival photos and liner notes about the recording process are made more poignant in light of Woody’s 2000 passing. Still, nothing can rob you of the pleasure hearing these cats plugging in, turning up and creating utter devastation brings.
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