Gov’t Mule bears the jam band tag, which, for most people, is a turn off. But to define Gov’t Mule as a jam band is both short-sighted and inaccurate. Gov’t Mule started off as filling in the gap, literally, between Son House (their self-titled debut opened with House’s “Grinnin’ in Your Face”) and Duane Allman (Haynes plays slide and lead in most incarnations of what is somehow still called the “Allman Bros.”) and, more figuratively, the gap between Led Zeppelin and Lynyrd Skynyrd. They garnered fans as diverse as Edwin McCain and James Hetfield (and yes, that is as diverse as you can get, a recent study has shown). The jam band thing is survival for the Mule, because hard rock doesn’t sell anymore and music lesson teachers don’t buy enough music to sustain careers.
The band’s first two studio albums, Gov’t Mule and Dose, were a resurrection of power-trios and brilliant musicianship that was about as exciting as anything in modern guitar for one particular reason: Gov’t Mule’s music and styling had nothing to do with the ’80s. Here was a band with three incredible musicians (guitarist Warren Haynes, bassist Allen Woody,and drummer Matt Abts) who also wrote some pop-structured songs (i.e., the virtuoso’s inkling to just excuses to solo or the blues guitar hero approach of 12 bar/12 bar/ballad/12 bar/ballad, etc.), a band that could jam without being a jam band (did anyone ever refer to Band of Gypsies as a jam band?) and experiment musically without falling into the Spinal Tap “jazz odyssey” joke (see disc two of Live…With a Little Help From Our Friends, works for me at least). The energy and excitement of the 1995-1999 period was indelible.
Of course, the passing of bassist Allen Woody in 2000 had to mark a transition for the band. The all-star bass lineups of the Deep End sessions (Bootsy Collins, Mike Watt, John Entwistle, Stefan Lessard, Jack Bruce, Flea, etc.) were both a joy to hear (in a celebratory and tribute-sense) and indicative of the influence and respect of Gov’t Mule in the music community.
But now, Gov’t Mule have become a bit flat. The songs haven’t gotten any better as far as song structures — I don’t think Stuart Murdoch or Rilo Kiley are nervous — and Haynes and Abts have no room for improvement as musicians anyway (you can’t get better, really). So, we end up with something like High & Mighty.
Opening with “Mr. High & Mighty” (somehow a different song than 1995’s “Mr. Big”), a rockin’ tune, sure, and Danny Louis’ keys are welcome (as they are throughout the album), but the song is indicative of the entire album. Its riff-rock, ’70s riff rock, actually (I think their appropriation of Muddy Waters’ “Streamline Woman” is a Physical Graffiti outtake), but I don’t mean that as an insult. It sounds good to hear the Mule settled, strong. But this is just such straightforward album: some high points, some lows, and mostly mids.
“Like Flies” is a low point. With clichéd and precious lyrics like “art has no place in the world of supersize” and “they would not know the difference between Vin Diesel and Van Gogh”, set to a dark riff, heavy drums, and distorted vocals. “Brand New Angel” is the album’s standout track, even with Abts’ middle-ground hipsterdom cowbell. The song has great intensity, a smart structure, restraint in all the right places, and flash where flash is acceptable.
Overall, Gov’t Mule fans will not be disappointed. There are some strong tracks here that will play great live, and the musicianship is still top notch — in fact, Haynes pulls out some of his best album work in a while: the jazz arps, slides, wah’s, three-note-per strings, all as tasty as ever. But High & Mighty is fans-only material.