The band's soulful, bluesy and hard rocking sound has led to 2014's "20 Years Strong" tour celebrating two decades of Gov't Mule.
The first weekend of autumn was a big one in San Diego. Sir Paul McCartney was set to play a show in the city for the first time in 38 years at Petco Park on Sunday. But another one of the hardest working men in show business was up first, as guitarist Warren Haynes brought his Gov't Mule to town for a Saturday night blowout in the city's historic Gaslamp District.
Haynes has recently been pulling not just double, but triple duty as he's been known to do on occasion throughout the 21st century. He started the month performing with both Phil Lesh and Friends and the Allman Brothers Band at the Lockn' Festival in Virginia, before launching Gov't Mule's fall tour in the Midwest. He then snuck in another Phil & Friends show in New York, flying all the way in from a Mule gig in Spokane, Washington the day before. Two days later he was back out west to continue Mule's fall tour. It's all just another month at the office for one of rock's most dedicated devotees.
Haynes is known for his uncanny ability to cover rock pioneers like the Beatles, the Doors, Led Zeppelin, Grateful Dead and so many more. But it's the way he mixes those influences into his own soulful, bluesy and hard rocking sound that has led to 2014"s "20 Years Strong" tour celebrating two decades of Gov't Mule. The band got right down to business with a "Bad Lil Doggie" opener that set a high energy tone for the evening. The Balboa Theater crowd, notorious for sitting through shows just because the theater has seats, was up on its feet from the start. A Mule crowd might lean a bit older, but it's a demographic that's always ready to rock out.
The reggae-tinged groove of "Unring the Bell" provided an early peak, deepening the vibe with a tune featuring some of Haynes' boldest lyrics. Written during the George W. Bush regime era, the song continues to defend the civil rights of the American people at a time when those rights remain under fire from Uncle Sam's incessant propaganda for the "war on terror". Mule took the tune for a fantastic ride, with Haynes clicking on his wah-wah pedal for some funky jamming over a marching dub groove from drummer Matt Abts and bassist Jorgen Carlsson. The sonic atmosphere was elevated further when keyboardist Danny Louis threw in a psychedelic organ solo as the band turned in a truly anthemic rendition of the song. Then Haynes tossed in a short tease on the Grateful Dead's "Shakedown Street" at the end, rousing the audience higher still.
The San Diego music scene receives rightful criticism from time to time when compared with Los Angeles and San Francisco, due to a shortage of quality venues and questions about the support the scene can offer touring bands. Mule even skipped San Diego on their fall 2013 tour after having played the House of Blues on the fall 2012 tour. But the Balboa is a superior venue to the HOB (save for the even weaker beer selection) and the "Shakedown" tease seemed to acknowledge this with the song's classic sentiment, "Don't tell me this town ain't got no heart, you just gotta poke around."
Haynes continued tearing it up on "Larger Than Life" and "Thelonius Beck", delivering some of the best lead guitar in modern music. But Haynes isn't just a lead guitarist. He's a soulful singer/songwriter as well, demonstrated here on a poignant combo of "I Shall Return" and "Time to Confess" to close the set. The latter featured a wah-wah infused "Get Up Stand Up" jam that electrified the Balboa, with Mule once again showing their elite skill at segues and left-field jams.
Why the Balboa Theater continues to serve only big corporate beer like Guiness, Heineken and Miller remains a mystery, especially when San Diego has become renowned for its thriving craft beer industry. But at least there's an outdoor smoking section where people can smoke or get some fresh air during the setbreak, as opposed to the decidedly non-fan-friendly environment of the nearby House of Blues.
"Child of the Earth" was an early highlight in the second set, a heartfelt bluesy gem with some poignant lyrics, including a "lead me to the mountains of the moon" line referencing the late '60s Grateful Dead classic. Carlsson and Abts laid down a monster groove on "Stratus", with Louis throwing in some electric piano recalling Bitches Brew-era Miles Davis. Haynes traded hot licks with guest guitarist T-Bone on a dynamic jam that explored a vast sonic landscape.
The set surged during "Lay Your Burden Down", with Haynes invoking the crowd to sing along on the chorus and indeed lay their burdens down in a rock 'n' roll ritual. "Can't you hear the angels screaming?" he sings on the tune that for some Californians will always recall the soul-searing August '99 rendition at the Berkeley Greek Theater on the day that Blues Traveler bassist Bobby Sheehan had passed away. The deep blues kept flowing as the band segued into "Smokestack Lightning", much to the delight of the audience. Haynes sang into his megaphone during one section, sounding like a voice from another dimension before ripping up some slide licks with an otherworldly quality of their own.
The band closed the set with a downright smoking take on "World Boss" from 2013's Shout LP, as the quartet delivered another heavy groove that crackled with electricity. Haynes sang what seems like a warning about a New World Order takeover. Many bands are content to keep their lyrics on a superficial level, but Warren Haynes has long been known for his willingness to speak truth to power while also delivering cathartic blues for the weary soul. It's all part of what makes him one of the modern counterculture's boldest and most important musicians.