Photo: Heath Robson

Smokin’ Gov’t Mule Tour Rocks Sonoma

Warren Haynes dives in on the hot groove, tearing it up while keyboardist Danny Louis brightens the sonic landscape with some great organ work.
Blackberry Smoke

A Gov’t Mule tour through the Bay Area usually means a stop at the fabled Fillmore, but guitarist Warren Haynes and company are mixing things up on the band’s “Muleifornia 2016” run. The bluesy quartet bypassed San Francisco altogether this time for a pair of outdoor shows in more distant points, appropriate for a summer tour. The band played a show at the Saratoga Mountain Winery in the South Bay on Tuesday, then journeyed to the far North Bay for a Wednesday evening show here at the new Sonoma Village Event Center. The drive from Highway 101 to the venue takes music fans on a scenic ride through some of Sonoma’s rustic farm country before arriving at the mixed use community space.

The new venue, some 40 miles north of San Francisco, aims to present a mini-festival atmosphere with local vendors providing food, clothing, jewelry, crafts and even a variety of cannabis oil vapes from Sonoma’s apparently booming medical cannabis industry (as opposed to adjacent Marin County, which still seems to frown on the California green rush). There was actually wider vape selection than beer selection, with suds oddly limited to just two offerings from the increasingly ubiquitous Lagunitas Brewery (IPA and pilsner). But this rare ratio sends a signal that fans have arrived in a progressive region (as does the solar powered stage). The concert space feels kind of like it was hastily jammed into a community college campus courtyard, but there’s ample space and some trees around to create an atmosphere that blends urban design with rural hospitality.

The venue probably isn’t drawing that many patrons from San Francisco and Oakland, but it’s filling a void for the Sonoma / Marin crowd. Blackberry Smoke have been on the tour for a “Smokin’ Mule” run and the Atlanta rockers hit the stage at 6:30PM, probably a bit on the early side for fellows who look like they prefer to rock all night and sleep all day. The band’s sound mixes a Southern rock foundation with blues, gospel and Americana, not unlike the Black Crowes that preceded them from the Atlanta region. Singer/guitarist Charlie Starr even looks a bit like a Robinson brother.

“The Smoke could use a little more jam,” comments one female onlooker about halfway through the set. The band seems to grasp that collective desire when they take Led Zeppelin’s “How Many More Times” for a ride. The jam opens up in crowd-pleasing fashion to show what Blackberry Smoke can do when they let go.

Gov’t Mule hits the stage about a half hour later, although the crowd seems to be in a bit of a snooze early on. Haynes throws a curveball with an early rendition of his signature song “Soulshine”, more often seen in the encore slot, although the crowd still feels like it’s in warmup mode. But you know it’s just a matter of time with Haynes, one of rock’s most prolific showmen of the 21st century. The trigger song turns out to be Billy Cobham’s “Stratus”, with bassist Jorgen Carlsson and drummer Matt Abts connecting on the dynamic fusion tune to catalyze the jamrock x-factor. Haynes dives in on the hot groove, tearing it up while keyboardist Danny Louis brightens the sonic landscape with some great organ work. Just like that, the set transforms like magic from Wednesday night blues into a Saturday night special.

Another highlight occurs when the cathartic blues of “Fallen Down” finds its way into a psychedelic space that conjures a smoking jam on the Grateful Dead’s “The Other One”. The seminal mind-melting tune is always a fan fave, what with Haynes having toured in a variety of Dead projects ever since a memorable Phil Lesh & Friends tour in the summer of 1999. Haynes continues to tear it up on “Game Face”, with some inspiring lyrics about being what you want to be and several classic rock teasers. A cover of another ‘60s classic hits the mark too when Haynes digs deep into the blues well for “I Can’t Quit You Baby”, which features some of his best riffage of the night.

The encore slot on the tour has been like a slot machine that comes up with a different winner each night as Blackberry Smoke’s Charlie Starr has been joining Mule for classic covers after every show. Here it’s a deep take on Funkadelic’s “Maggot Brain”, with Haynes and Starr trading melty licks. Another deep cut follows with “Where Did You Sleep Last Night”, the Lead Belly blues classic popularized by Nirvana. In the end, few probably felt that a concert venue in the middle of Sonoma farm land would be much of a draw. But the SOMO Village Event Center suggests that you if you build it, they will come.