Gov’t Mule enraptures packed house at the Landmark (Review)
By Kevin Fitzpatrick
Judging by the size of the crowd at the Landmark Friday night, there is hardly a soul in Syracuse who doesn’t already know Gov’t Mule. It almost feels unnecessary for me to say what so many already have figured out. Gov’t Mule is something special. It’s a uniquely absorbing experience which I’ve only ever very rarely experienced at a show. After seeing them for the first time, it’s easy to see why people go again and again and again.
The four men are exceptional musicians. The core members are long-time industry professionals whose chemistry as a unit is as apparent as their skills and confidence as individuals. The ambitious, exhausting sets wouldn’t be possible without it. Their two sets ran the gamut of musical styles from the muggy, deep southern rock the band and especially their frontman, Warren Haynes, is known for, to the psychedelic, to the bluesy, to a jazz bright enough to feel at home in the corner of a smokey clubroom. With the exception of the occasional addition of a wailing harmonica by Hook Herrera, the core members achieved an enormous range of sounds with minimal change-up of equipment.
The instrumentals were acrobatic, but nuanced. Solos don’t feel like solos in a Gov’t Mule jam. No one onstage seems eager to show off for his own sake. Instead, each instrument pushes and pulls and tumbles into a set up for the next one, meanwhile never losing its own momentum. There are no visual flourishes, no choreography, not much movement at all, and if you paid me I couldn’t recall what any of them were wearing. The flamboyant lightshow takes enough of the eyes attention, but even that seems to be in service to the music. Like a nurse making small-talk with a patient while she administers a shot, the lights distracted the eye, hypnotically, so that the ears could focus. Everything in a Gov’t Mule show builds up to the larger whole.
The dynamic composition within each of Gov’t Mule’s songs are apparent. Each piece had a contained sense of story, and unlike many bands who find an arc that works for them and repeat it over and over, Gov’t Mule adapts. Some started loud and fast then diminished, before rising again. Some rose and rose and rose. Many sported a whole range of valleys and peaks. But they were never the same twice, so that even two songs that featured almost identical chord progressions, as many blues tunes tend to do, felt like two very different journeys. In this way, the musicians were able to play with the audience’s expectations. During one piece in the second set, I counted no less than six false endings. Lesser musicians employing a trick like that might make a listener feel cheated of their catharsis, but they made it make sense. You kept listening and saw that no, it was never over. There were still loose ends to tie up.
It’s a rare experience, too, to see a group that truly seems to fit the venue they’re in. The scale of Gov’t Mule’s skill and imagination was just right for the grandiosity of the Landmark. The sound, the display, and the audience filled the hall without it ever feeling over-full. The richness of the music coalesced with the grandeur of the Landmark’s opulent decor. One imagines a jam band more easily outdoors, playing before a muddy field in mid-summer, but I can’t imagine that sounding better than what we got.
It’s easy to lose track of time wrapped up in a Gov’t Mule show. Even for a person whose job it is to pay attention to a band, it’s easy to drift. Don’t tell my editor, but there were several long stretches where I simply forgot to take notes, and when I snapped back into my head I had no idea how much I had missed, how many songs had passed, or if this were simply one more distinct act in another of Gov’t Mule’s rhapsodies. Gov’t Mule fans, and jam band fans in general, make pilgrimages as often as they can to see their favorites again and again. It becomes a sort of ritual, the attendance and the performance. I see now where they’re coming from, and while I certainly can’t say whether or not the experience might grow stale seeing them again and again, I can recommend at least seeing Gov’t Mule once. It’s really something else.
River of Fools
Tears of God
Broke Down on the Bravos
Feel Like B.U.S.H.
Jesus Just Left Chicago
Dark Was the Night
(Encore) Key to the Highway