Gov’t Mule carries heavy load of Allmans’ past while looking to future
via The Morning Call
Since the dissolution of The Allman Brothers at the end of 2014, and especially with the death of founding drummer Butch Trucks and leader Gregg Allman last year, the Allmans’ legacy, as well as the designation as Southern rock’s standard bearers, has fallen to Gov’t Mule.
And that’s appropriate. Led by former Allmans guitarist Warren Haynes, Gov’t Mule certainly can jam a combination of Southern rock, jazz and the blues in the way that became The Allman Brothers’ trademark.
But over its more than 20 years, Gov’t Mule in recent years has forged an identity apart from being an Allman Brothers side project, releasing full albums of Pink Floyd covers (2014’s “Dark Side of the Mule”), playing and recording with jazz guitarist John Scofield as Sco-Mule, and even trying its hand at covers of The Rolling Stones and reggae (“Stoned Side of the Mule” and “Dub Side of the Mule,” respectively).
Its most recent disc, last year’s “Revolution Come, Revolution Go,” again establishes the band as a legitimate power of blues-rock — and even a band that can make a political statement, on songs such as “Stone Cold Rage.”
Gov’t Mule will put those abilities on display Wednesday, April 18 at Sands Bethlehem Event Center.
In a phone call from the bustling streets of New York, where he was helping his brother navigate the city’s health care system (Haynes now lives an hour north of New York, but his voice still carries the distinct sound of his North Carolina upbringing), Haynes says the disc shows a rejuvenated Gov’t Mule.
“It’s the first album we’ve made since celebrating out 20th anniversary as a band” in 2014, Haynes notes; the last studio disc from Gov’t Mule was 2013’s “Shout!”
In between, the band took a break to let Haynes record and tour for its solo disc, 2015’s “Ashes & Dust,” that hit No. 6 on Billboard’s Rock Albums chart.
“We took a little break,” Haynes says. “And then when we re-formed, there was this nice rejuvenation. Everybody was psyched to get back together and play and write and make a record.”
As it turns out, recording the new disc started on Election Day 2016, which turns out was appropriate, because several cuts on the disc examine the discord in today’s politics.
“We realized, even though the results were kind of not what anyone was expecting, it didn’t really change the songs and the way they were written, because the few political songs that were on the record were dealing mostly with the divide that’s going on in America that was gonna exist regardless of who won the election,” Haynes says.
“I always tend to write about whatever’s going on at the time. The few songs that actually are political were just, you know, looking around and seeing what’s going on. We travel a lot, so I’m able to get a lot of different perspectives of the same thing, and everywhere you go, the divide is obvious. It’s never been this divided in my life time, or at least my adult lifetime.”
One of the album’s songs with an obvious political message is Gov’t Mule’s reworking of the classic 1920s slide guitar/gospel-blues song “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground” by Blind Willie Johnson.
Just as Gov’t Mule reworked the traditional blues song “Railroad Boy” for its 2009 album “By a Thread” and “John The Revelator” for its sophomore disc “Dose in 1998,” Haynes says Gov’t Mule wanted to take on another challenge for this disc.
“Well, it’s such a heavy piece, you know? A lot of blues enthusiasts, including myself, consider it to be one of the greatest blues recordings. The original recording was an instrumental, but it had such a heavy vibe about it, and just the title itself kind of lends an atmosphere to the tune. So I’ve always loved the tune.”
While Johnson’s version of “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground” was an instrumental with only blues moaning, Hayes added lyrics that warn, “Rue the day that we can’t live together/Cut so deep and we keep bleeding forever.”
“I wasn’t originally gonna write lyrics for it; we were just gonna make it an instrumental and occasionally I would sing the title,” Haynes says. “But everybody started saying, ‘No, you should write lyrics.’ So I did.
“And it’s a very poignant time for a very poignant song, and we really just worked it up in the studio. I’d been thinking about it a lot in the preceding months, but we didn’t start working on the musical aspect until we got in the studio. We just took a lot of the different themes that Blind Willie Johnson played and sang, or mumbled, or whatever, on the original recording, and structured them together like a rock song.”
Another song on the disc, “Burning Point,” features blues-rock guitarist Jimmie Vaughn. Hayes says Gov’t Mule had finished the recording and was listening back to it and he thought, “You know what? This song needs Jimmie Vaughn,” he says with a laugh.
Vaughn lives in Austin, where the album was being recorded, and “he just came in and did his thing. And it really balanced out the whole thing. Even though he wasn’t with us when we cut the initial track, it sounds like he’s standing right there with us.”
While the political overtone have captured a lot of attention, “Revolution Come, Revolution Go” also has “a lot of subject matters,” Haynes says. “There’s a lot of songs about reflection and about one-on-one relationships.”
The disc certainly caught listners’ ears; it gave Gov’t Mule the band’s best first week of sales for any of its discs. Haynes says the reason may be “because we hadn’t had a studio release in a bit. Maybe people thought we took too long of a break and were worried we were gonna go away.”
What has gone away, in many ways, in the past year was the Allman Brothers.
“Losing Butch and then Gregg back-to-back like that was really tough, and it’s been hard on the entire extended family,” Haynes says. “But life goes on, you know.”
He says he spoke to Trucks “a few times on the phone not too long prior” to his death by self-inflicted gunshot in January 2017. “Obviously Butch’s death came as a shock to all of us,” he says.
“With Gregg, Derek [Trucks, his co-guitarist in The Allman Brothers and Butch’s nephew] and I had driven down to see him in Savannah a couple of weeks before he passed [in May from liver cancer]. And, you know, we knew it was coming, but it didn’t make it any easier preparing for it.”
One story Haynes wants to dispel is that he and Derek Trucks’ contemporaneous decisions to leave The Allman Brothers hastened the end of the band.
In truth, the band had decided three years earlier that it would call it quits when it did.
“I think it got a little convoluted in the press, and that was all on us,” he says.
“But for about three years prior, we had been talking as a band and had agreed that we wanted to go out with a bang and we didn’t want to continue past the point where the band would eventually turn into a nostalgia act. And everybody was in agreement and we picked the time and place and we were moving forward.
“And then a few people got cold feet and started second-guessing it as it got a little closer to the end date, you know? Course, myself and Derek had made all these plans that we couldn’t change. And we’re like, ‘Guys, we gotta stick with the original script here. We got all this stuff booked that can’t possibly change.’
“And so it was a little distorted publicly because some people thought that Derek and I were quitting the band – which was not the case. But we all agreed that we didn’t want it to ever reach a point where we just go through the motions. Because the Allman Brothers was never about that.
“Some bands can get away with that. Some bands can go play their hits and do 75 to 90 minutes and call it a night. But the Allman Brothers always left everything on the stage every night. And we wanted to go out that way.”