You can’t pigeonhole Gov’t Mule. Here’s a band rooted in southern rock that made themselves a permanent home on the jam-band circuit. They’re signed to Blue Note, a legendary jazz label. They’re equally comfortable interpreting Eric Clapton as they are Eric Dolphy. Their live shows are chock full of tidbits of familiar melodies splashed through the setlist in a most Pollock-esque manner, designed to be both nods to the knowing and prods to the ignorant … a fine example of musician’s musicians.
I have nothing but respect for a band that can set me up for a specific expectation only to turn the tables mid-song for a finely crafted wild ride. The new Gov’t Mule offering is filled with songs that do just that, but so does the album as a whole. It’s safe to assume the road has made masters out of Warren Haynes, Jorgen Carlsson, Danny Louis and Matt Abst. The dynamics this group is able to execute live are legendary, and it transfers well to the studio. This is evident on Shout! from the beginning. I will admit two minutes into the first song, “World Boss”, I was starting to lose hope quite prematurely. Patience is not my virtue. It didn’t take long after that for the Mule to show some prowess and flavor up this typical rock anthem with as much flavor as you come to expect from good southern cookin’. That one break from the monotony of formula rock is genius in small doses, and I as a sonically-hungry member of the pop populous respect the Mule for dealing out their drug licks responsibly. A little does go a long way, and I’m only on song one.
Shout! is a deliberate journey, and the trip Gov’t Mule wants you to take on their latest effort is effortlessly fluid. Each song seems carefully placed for the best effect, an art long lost in the cutout bins of yesteryear. “World Boss” transitions to “No Reward” as cohesively as “Brown Sugar” moves to “Sway”. By the third song, “Whisper In Your Soul”, the Mule lock you in with texture and emotion. Besides a few gratuitous turns of cliche phrases, it only gets better from here. “Forsaken Savior”, “Captured”, and “When the World Gets Small” are all highlights throughout a remarkably cohesive album, and I’m only on disc one. Yes, I meant to do that.
Here’s where Shout! gets really interesting. Disc two is also Shout!, the same songs as disc one, but with an incendiary list of vocalists replacing Warren Haynes’ deliveries with their own. It’s as if Haynes wrote the songs with these particular vocalists in mind, because it works so well. Dr. John on “Stoop So Low” is perfection. Elvis Costello’s style fits into “Funny Little Tragedy” more so than Haynes. In fact, as much as I praise the main LP, disc two of Shout! is, dare I say it, better. It’s the tribute album that couldn’t wait 20 years to rear its pretty head. Whoever set this concept up executed it well beyond what I could have ever possibly expected. It’s like having prime rib for dinner and filet mignon for desert, if you’re a meat-eater. Sorry veggie-lovers. I have no point of reference to go by, except yes I would like fries with that. Extra gravy, please.
Whether you consider the Mule to be a jam band or rock band or some other anomalistic genre, southern rock is alive and well through them. The newest incarnation of Nashville wants the world to believe the torch has been passed on to the latest crop of formula-following country check-cashers. I disagree. While country music these days does tend to emulate (and downright plagiarize) the southern rock of the past, the torch-bearers decided to keep the flame within their family years ago. Warren Haynes has kept one foot in the revered past since his inclusion in the Allman Brothers Band, and an eye to where this music should be going with Gov’t Mule. Anyone who has been to a bevy of Mule shows has heard a different blend of choice cover songs at each performance, effortlessly blending John Coltrane with James Brown with Hank Sr. and so on, always keeping one finger on the blend button. Haynes is all about traveling new frontiers and keeping the old music alive at the same time. He’s damn good at it, too. Shout! has Gov’t Mule showing the highest respect to all forms of classic roots, as is the case with arguably all of their studio efforts. And unlike a good portion of their musical heroes, they’ve made themselves better with time.