Two of the greatest gifts Gov’t Mule have given their fans over the years are revelation and validation. As for the former, the Mule’s hard rock forebears already spent decades exposing their listeners to the blues. While some fans were resigned to lift their lighters and bang their head to the heavy riffs and volume of Cream and Led Zeppelin, others – like a young Warren Haynes – read the small print and searched out these mysterious songs’ origins.
As for the latter, it’s the validation that’s most rewarding when catching Haynes, Matt Abts, Danny Louis, and Jorgen Carlsson live. In concert, they excel by peppering their ever-evolving sets with well-chosen covers of everyone from Tom Waits and Howlin’ Wolf to Johnny Cash and Frank Zappa. They know their fans have just as wide-ranging taste as they do. It’s in that spirit that what’s being touted as Gov’t Mule’s first strictly “all-blues” album, Heavy Load Blues, is not-so-strictly that at all, but a soul-baring journey of the blues, mainly through the lens of soul and hard rock, in all its complexity, beauty, darkness, and glory.
Convening at the Power Station New England, Gov’t Mule gathered a plethora of vintage gear and recorded live to analog tape in one low-ceilinged room. Facing and feeding off each other allowed them to feel the vibrations of the room as well as the drums, keys, guitars, and amps. The result inspires comparisons to the likes of Hoodoo Man Blues, Junior Wells’ landmark mid-’60s Chicago blues album cut by the legendary Bob Koester on his Delmark label with Jack Myers on bass, drummer Bill Warren, and Buddy Guy on guitar.
Heavy Load Blues begins with a version of songwriter/pianist Leroy Carr’s “Blues Before Sunrise”, first recorded in 1934 by Carr and guitarist Scrapper Blackwell. The take lays the groundwork for the rest of the album: loud, raw, a little messy – soulfully imperfect. Speaking of Hoodoo Man Blues, the Mule tackles that classic platter’s opening track, “Snatch It Back and Hold It”. They expand on it with a groove-tastic extended middle section in the spirit of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Ramble Tamble”.
As if it needs to be said, calling this Gov’t Mule’s first all-blues album is a misnomer. The songs are all blues-based, yes. The likes of Carr, Wells, and Howlin’ Wolf are represented (the latter by a balls-out, psyched-up version of “I Asked Her For Water”), as are Bobby “Blue” Bland (a truly captivating “Ain’t No Love in the Heart of the City”) and inimitable Ann Peebles (the Mule live staple “Breaking Up Somebody’s Home”, also made famous in an epic version by Albert King). But so is blues-based rock ‘n’ roll, including a definitive take on Tom Waits’ 2004 highlight off Real Gone, “Make It Rain” (its groove here is undeniable).
Also covered, however, are artists that most likely first turned Haynes on to the blues, like the short-lived supergroup, Cactus, represented by a fierce “(Brother Bill) Last Clean Shirt”, which first appeared on their self-titled 1970 album. Also present are Haynes originals that fit seamlessly with the covers, including the long-awaited studio version of “If Heartaches Were Nickels”. Its a song dating back over 20 years and has been recorded by both Kenny Neal and Joe Bonamassa. There are two acoustic-based mood pieces: the stunning delta-derived title track and the album-closing “Black Horizon”.
Heavy Load Blues is also available in a deluxe edition, with six bonus tracks that rival the material on the album proper. Seven, actually, but one is the unedited version of “Breaking Up Somebody’s Home”. Here you’ll find the Mule’s takes on the Savoy Brown classic, “Street Corner Talking”, a ferocious version of Muddy Waters’ “Long Distance Call”, and a deep, soulful cut of Little Willie John’s “Need Your Love So Bad” (no doubt by way of the Fleetwood Mac version). There’s an incredible take on Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s “Lord Have Mercy on the Criminal” that unfortunately sounds more urgent now than when it first appeared on 1973’s Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only the Piano Player.
More times than not, bonus material can be done without, as it doesn’t add much to the experience. However, on Heavy Load Blues, it’s essential and deepens the experience, proving that Gov’t Mule is at their best when they plug in, reach back to their roots, and dig deep into their soul.