As renowned for his electric guitar work in fellowship with strong Southern rock outlets like his Gov’t Mule and the Allman Brothers Band before it, as well as for his stints touring with the Grateful Dead and various other extensions of the rock world and its sub-branches that he’s had throughout a very distinguished 35 years, Warren Haynes is more of a chameleon paving his way across a myriad of branches across the musical tree than many give him credit for. He’s delved “neck-deep” into the workings of the acoustic guitar enough to call the electric’s more traditionally Americana-oriented cousin as much of a relative to his handiwork as any, with his live rendition of Radiohead’s “Lucky” flipped into an acoustic performance garnering cult attention since the first time he’d delivered it to an audience over a decade ago. It’s with that in mind that the full forward extension into the acoustic playing field that he displays in his latest studio offering, Ashes & Dust, comes as less of a surprise or reinvention than it does a pleasant dive into an already well-documented “other side” to the Mule co-founder.
Haynes doesn’t go it alone into the broad Americana expanse, however, opting instead to recruit the assistance of New Jersian newgrass band Railroad Earth to offer their expertise to the project as he spreads his wings across a countrified setting for the first time across a full-length. The influence of the accompanying band is palpable from the get-go, with opening track “Is It Me or You” bringing a studied introspection to the more intrinsic grit brought on by Haynes’s decades of experience drenched in rock and blues. An entwinement of violin and mandolin, courtesy of Tim Carbone and John Skehan, respectively, grace the track especially well with an eloquence that melds in astoundingly fitting manner with a blazing deliverance of the electric guitar work.
Haynes’s most forthright sonic staple hasn’t left the framework of the album entirely, actually making an appearance on most of the tracks which Ashes & Dust is comprised of. It’s not in the sheer impressiveness of the electric delivery or the acoustic on its own that makes the sound something special and unique to Haynes’s portfolio, but rather in how well it all melds together into its own entity. Any piece showcasing the electric side of the ensemble is toned to a point that it doesn’t overpower the record as a showpiece item, but rather mixes itself in with the bevy of acoustic instruments to an astoundingly proper degree. “Stranded in Self-Pity” is a good example of this, offering enough work on dobro and electric guitar to not keep it too alienated from Haynes’s overarching work, but with a fine mix of acoustic and electric to drive it into a realm of vaudevillian instrumentation, with some brass joining the electric guitar and violin on the bridge for one bluesy declaration.
After a fairly straightforward cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Gold Dust Woman” featuring an impeccable duet with Grace Potter (a staple for longtime fans of each, having had appeared on their setlist rotation as a duo performance for some time now) the lush acousti-rock sentiment of “Beat Down the Dust”, and the extensive blues-grass of “Spots of Time”, the album has its highest point in “Hallelujah Boulevard”. Haynes and Railroad Earth introduce the track with a tentative, brooding instrumental checkup, which would prototypically embrace the opening of a tremendous rock-out, before throwing a curveball and evolving the playing out of the song as a nostalgic ballad. Someone most widely known by a wide margin for his work as a rocker, Haynes shows off his Americana side in just as seamlessly great a manner as he had any other performance in the past. In doing so, he simultaneously proves his prowess as a competent musician given any platform to toy with, and that labels in the first place might just be rather confounded.