Warren Haynes: 17 October 2011 – Chicago

Warren Haynes

Warren Haynes is the typhoon. He is a force of such unmitigated, uninterrupted power with his voice blowing a gale force wind into the building and his guitar assaulting structures like sheets of rain, that spending a night with him at a concert theater on the northside of Chicago is not so much spending a night with a musician, as it is placing yourself in the eye of a natural disaster.

The new Warren Haynes album, Man in Motion, surpassed all expectations that I had for it. I expected it to be good, but I did not expect it be a nearly perfect presentation and performance of newly written soul songs that borrow equally from Wilson Pickett, James Brown, and the Allman Brothers. The songs, from the danceable, old school Rhythm and Blues of “Take a Bullet”, to the down on your knees, drenched in sweat testimony of “Your Wildest Dreams” fury out of the speakers like a tornado with a full horns section, Haynes’s guitar virtuosity, and Ivan Neville on organ. They represent a bygone era of rock for the heart and soul for the soul, and position Warren Haynes, who wrote all but one of the songs and sings a gravel lead on every tune, as a one man revivalist.

Not having seen Haynes in concert before or knowing much about the religiously devoted live audience he has built over his storied career as front man for Gov’t Mule and sideman for the Allman Brothers and the Grateful Dead, I expected the performance of the Warren Haynes Band at the Vic Theatre in Chicago on October 17, 2011, to be good. I did not expect it to be one of the best displays of musical mastery and performative passion I have ever seen.

My friend and I arrived at the show and were able to find an open space close to the stage among the assortment of young, and I hate to use such a dated and now borderline meaningless term but feel there is no better substitute, hippies. The friendly crowd of zealous Haynes followers lit their joints and scratched their beards in the moments before the show. A woman in her thirties, who stood next to me and seemed to know most of the surrounding audience members from past shows, was able to give me impressively comprehensive biographies of every Haynes band member, before she launched into a detailed series of setlist wishes for that night’s performance. According to her, Haynes and company radically alter their set from night-to-night, which makes following them around the country, if somehow economically feasible, more rewarding than that for the average pop band. A cursory look at “Warren Base”, the setlist archive available at Warren Haynes’s official website, confirms the nomadic female fan’s analysis.

She told me that shows beginning with the Gov’t Mule favorite, “Tear Me Down”, are typically the best. Despite her not explaining the reasoning for the supposed superiority of shows that open with “Tear Me Down”, I took her word for it and sensed some promise when the band steamrolled its opening notes over the crowd. Quickly from that point on it became clear that I was in the presence of something special.

After “Tear Me Down”, Haynes led his band through the first two songs of his new album, “Man in Motion” and “Rivers Gonna Rise”. Each had their own hair-raising, spine-tingling moments. The former ended with a three part harmony among Haynes on guitar, Nigel Hall on organ, and Ron Holloway on saxophone. The ladder ended with an awe-inspiring duel between Haynes shredding on guitar and backup vocalist, Alecia Chakour, wailing on voice.

Haynes proved himself to be an excellent leader on both guitar, on which his skills are legendary, and vocals. Touring with Gregg Allman has made Haynes’s already booming raspy voice sound almost identical to the southern rock icon, possibly even stronger.

It was the collective unit of the Warren Haynes Band, however, that was other worldly in their flawless, yet impassioned, and proficient, yet emotionally chaotic, ability to not only play the notes correctly, but hit the right notes. Hitting the right notes — the notes that somehow hit the chords of the heart — is the mark of soul music. The Warren Haynes Band hit those notes and those chords with an apocalyptic intensity, ferocity, and urgency.

Given the excellence of every player, and considering the air tight organization of the band’s jamming and grooving, each audience member likely had his or her own personal favorite performer. Nigel Hall had the unenviable task of replacing Ivan Neville, yet he became a star in his own right, singing in a style resembling Stevie Wonder and playing the soulful, gospel sounds of the B-3. Alecia Chakour brought beauty and sensuality to the stage with stunning physicality and stirring vocalization of tenderness underneath Haynes’s gruff growl. The bassist and drummer were impeccable, playing with enough funk to get the crowd bouncing to the beat.

The show stealer, however, was Ron Holloway. Holloway, as a solo musician, is a jazz saxophonist, but has blown his horn for Gil-Scott Heron, Little Feat, and Susan Tedeschi, before joining Haynes. Any word other than “monster” seems embarrassingly weak to describe the power and presence of Holloway on stage. He harmonized with Haynes’s guitar. He strengthened Haynes’s guitar, and he played his own solos with a chaotic unpredictability that left one first gasping for air when attempting to catch up with his sonic thrill ride, and second, when trying to figure how in the hell he put it all together, making it seem entirely planned underneath a coherent musical structure, in an act that was nothing less than magic.

The interplay between Holloway and Haynes provided jaw-on-the-floor jam moments to conclude the soul-stomper “On a Real Lonely Night”, the boiling ballad “A Friend to You” and the rock, rhythm and blues hybrid, “Sick of My Shadow”.

During the intermission, I ran into a blues and jazz guitar player who has a solid reputation on the Southside of Chicago, and he said that he was hoping for straight forward blues in the second set. I nodded, and did not add that straight forward blues was exactly what I was hoping against. The blues guitar player got his wish, and I saw him enraptured as Haynes bent his notes unmercifully to inflict the amount of pain needed to make his guitar cry.

Any reviewer must admit personal bias if that bias may impinge upon the abilities of that reviewer or on the impartiality of the review. The second set opening trio of blues songs was the most boring part of the show for me, but the audience seemed to collectively share the reaction of the individual Southside guitarist. I understand the power of the blues, but it is only effective, on me, in low dosage. Once Haynes started stretching out his sixth blues guitar solo on Albert King’s “Feel Like Breaking Up Somebody’s Home”, I, again seemingly alone in the audience, began to yawn.

Not a second after the sound of fatigue left my mouth did Haynes and company do something wildly unexpected and exhilarating. They turned the blues standard into a medley with the Tower of Power classic, “Don’t Change Horses”. Haynes and Hall traded vocals, and Hall, screaming and holding high notes, seemed to be challenging Haynes for the lead singer spot, much to Haynes’s visible delight. The musical skill required to play such a medley is outdone only by the imaginative-ness required to conceive of it in the first place.

Warren Haynes is a brilliant guitarist who has now proven his abilities as a fine soul singer. Alecia Chakour is a beautiful singer, and it doesn’t hurt that she can dance with enough sexual power to blow out every amplifier on stage. The rest of the band members, especially Holloway, are incredibly talented musicians and terrifically eccentric performers. Their greatest gift on the live stage, however, is not instrumentation or even innovation. It is imagination.

Haynes had the imagination to create an album that combines the best of 1960s and 1970s Southern Soul in an era when gospel, deep soul, and the emotions it summons and presents, are not cool, cutting edge, or fashionable. He and his band have the imagination to deliver that soul, in ways both familiar and surprising, night after night.

The audience was made up almost entirely of white people who looked like they took a two hour break from their posts at Occupy Chicago to enjoy the show. Demographics are only worth mentioning because Haynes, with an all black band, is paying tribute to a genre of black music with his latest project. Racial categorizations in art are often flawed and dubious. For all intensive purposes, with that being said, Haynes is playing music in the style of black musicians whose art was informed by and imbued with the terrors and triumphs of the black experience.

The highpoint of the night concluded the second set. Haynes took his own song — the danceable testimony of love “Take a Bullet” — and turned it into a back and forth medley with Stevie Wonder’s “I Wish”. Two of the few black men in the crowd laughed with palpable excitement as Haynes sang the opening lines of Wonder’s wondrous classic. Most of the audience hesitated, but by its last chorus before morphing back into “Bullet”, were dancing and singing along.

The beauty of the moment felt like it captured part of the meaning within the beauty of America. A white man on stage surrounded by black musicians honored a musical style created by black people to comfort themselves during oppression. The black members of the audience were a little sharper than the white members, but both groups loved it alike.

The love comes from an internally created and internally enforced swing of emotions that all music at its heart is about – love, joy, pain, hope, loss, loneliness, and redemption. The difference between Haynes’s music, as performed with his band on his current tour, and many other forms of music is that his music is worthy and effectively able to express the ups and downs and highs and lows of the emotional life.

Haynes may be a typhoon, but he is a miraculously gentle one. While he is blowing your house apart, he somehow manages to do so with an intimate respect for the most sacred objects held inside.