Gov’t Mule Rocks the Equinox with Revolutionary Fervor in Oakland
It’s a beautiful autumn equinox evening in the Bay Area, and fans of guitar-driven rock are flocking to Oakland’s Fox Theater for the return of Government Mule. Guitarist Warren Haynes always brings a fiery rock ‘n’ roll show to town, but he’s also carved out a well-earned reputation for delivering music that taps into the current cultural zeitgeist. Government Mule has only enhanced this reputation with the band’s latest album, 2017’s Revolution Come, Revolution Go.
The album is easily one of the year’s top musical statements in this world gone mad under the insane presidency of the orange-haired character that currently occupies the White House with a no holds barred war on the poor (in this case anyone not in the top one percent). Which is not to say that the album is a Rage Against the Machine-style platter dedicated solely to such political venom, but there’s a current of socially conscious urgency running through it that mirrors the moment. That is nothing new for Haynes, who has long been a working-class hero who can’t stay quiet in the face of injustice.
The timing of this equinox tour stop in the Bay Area has some longtime fans feeling a synchronistic flashback to the band’s incendiary performance at San Francisco’s Warfield Theater on September 20, 2001. Rolling into town just nine days after the terrorist attacks of September 11 when many bands were putting tours on hold, Haynes and a slew of special guests delivered an electrifying performance that was charged with a revolutionary theme of resistance against the chaos of the world and the powers that be with timely covers that included Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War”, Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World” and the Beatles’ “Revolution”.
The band opens the show here with the new “Traveling Tune”, a melodic ode to life on the road from the new album that feels like an instant classic in how it details Mule’s road warrior lifestyle to bring the music to the people. When they drop the hard rocking jam staple “Thorazine Shuffle” next, it’s a clear sign that Haynes means business tonight. That is further confirmed with the powerful ”Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground”, a deep blues track from the new album that’s a remake of a song from seminal bluesman Blind Willie Johnson. Mule reshapes the song as a dynamic Zeppelin-esque blast of rock power that shines bright with Haynes delivering some smoldering slide work on his 12-string Gibson Les Paul.
The set keeps building momentum and soon taps into some local history with an instrumental jam on the Grateful Dead’s psychedelic classic “The Other One”, a remnant of Haynes’ time touring with both Phil Lesh & Friends and with the latter-day version of the Dead. Always a popular choice in these parts, the “Other One” jam turns out to be merely a fuse for the monster jam that follows on Billy Cobham’s prog rock gem “Stratus”. Bassist Jorgen Carlsson and drummer Matt Abts take the lead here to conjure a smoking groove that ignites the room, as the audience is pulled into a collective boogie that Haynes drives higher with some hot riffage. It’s one of the grooviest tunes in the repertoire, making it a growing fan favorite as becomes readily apparent by the enthusiastic reception that takes place.
“Revolution Come, Revolution Go” follows, and the title track from the new album is a clear winner. The second verse pegs the American political cycle with Haynes as journalistic troubadour: “New master riding in on a white horse, All the new kings with them feet of clay, Lying to the people ‘bout some new deal, Chump change happens every day”. Keyboardist Danny Louis backs the edgy groove with some funky organ work as Haynes continues, singing of “People in the streets raising their voices high, Trying to be heard over the thunder, World is rumbling and trembling, Is it some kind of spell that we’re under?” The band creates some thunder of their own, channeling the fervor of the modern resistance to corporate tyranny for a red hot jam filled with blues power.
The new “Stone Cold Rage” drives the point home to close the lengthy set with more incendiary resistance rock. The set has been over 90 minutes long, and it’s only halftime as Haynes shows no sign of slowing down.
The second set finds the band continuing to cover wide ground, featuring a show-stopping cover of Jimi Hendrix’s timeless anthem for personal freedom “If 6 was 9”. There are few guitarists on Earth who can cover the entire classic rock pantheon with the skill that Haynes does, and he shows it again here with a mesmerizing reading of the Hendrix classic that takes the audience on a dazzling trip back to 1967.
Haynes has also been paying frequent tribute to the more recently departed Greg Allman here in 2017 and does so again toward the end of the set with Allmans’ deep cut “Come and Go Blues”. Louis adds some great piano work as well, enhancing the cathartic vibe that’s oozing from Haynes’ voice and guitar. The band doubles down with a stellar jam on the Allmans’ “Mountain Jam” that features Haynes tearing it up at his melodic best, as the band takes a rocking victory lap with the audience riding along to a triumphant peak. It seems like a climactic jam to end the set, but Haynes pulls one more card from up his sleeve by leading the band back into “Traveling Tune” to brilliantly sandwich the show with the new road anthem that has the classic feel.
Longtime Bay Area music man Pete Sears sits in on keyboards for a double encore on Elmore James’ blues classic “It Hurts Me Too” and Hound Dog Taylor’s “Gonna Send You Back to Georgia”. It’s been one of the longest nights of music the Fox Theater has seen or will see this year, appropriate for a festive occasion like the autumn equinox where the music hits the soul with just a little extra metaphysical power.
The fate of the political revolution remains in peril with the foul swine of the Trump regime laying waste to civil society, but the musical revolution is alive and well with artists like Government Mule kicking butt and taking names. As Allmusic.com’s Thom Jurek notes in his review of the new album, “Their call to arms isn’t preachy; instead, righteous anger is refracted through the lens of empathy… The message is that the revolution is within you: Hear it, believe it, become it.”