Playing in the Band: A Conversation with Gov’t Mule’s Warren Haynes
via Journal Star
It’s been five years since Gov’t Mule played Lincoln.
So when I dialed up Warren Haynes last week, I figured we’d talk a little about “Revolution Come … Revolution Go,” the jam band’s politically inflected 2017 album, his seemingly endless work playing with The Mule, the Allman Brothers, The Dead, his own band and on all kinds of recordings, his slide guitar master and headlining summer festivals.
But that’s not how the conversation with the Grammy-winning guitarist and singer went. After some connection issues, I commented that it had been years since Gov’t Mule had played Lincoln — too long, in my view.
“You’re right about that,” Haynes responded. “It’s very early on the tour.”
GZ: Is being early in the tour a bad thing or a good thing?
WH: It’s really good. I don’t really see any down side to it. There’s no real difference for us between early and late in the tour. You can see a great show anytime. And this one, it’s good to get back there since we haven’t been there for so long.”
So what makes a great show?
You can really tell if a show is going to be great from the very beginning. From the first minute you know if that show is going to be right, going to be good. There’s an energy coming from the audience that’s kind of hard to explain. If it’s going to be great, it’s there from the beginning. For us, we’re going to do what we do. We play a different setlist every night, take a totally different path every night.
Talking about playing a different setlist every night — I see so many bands playing the same setlist every night. You guys are the opposite of that. Where does that come from?
Jazz bands, blues bands and bluegrass bands have been doing that for decades. In rock, the great bands have imitated that. When I joined the Allman Brothers in 1989, we did the same set for two or three years. Then we changed. It really proved to be the best decision, for the band and the fans. For the band, we didn’t feel stagnant playing the same songs every show. For the audience, they never knew what they were going to get hit with.
Gov’t Mule adopted that philosophy from the very beginning. Even though, when we started out we only knew a handful of songs, it was “shake ’em up.” Now, 25 years later, we could do four nights and not repeat a song.
Doesn’t playing a different setlist each night open up the songs to be played differently as well?
Yes, especially if you come back to a song after a few months, or even a few days, when you come back to it you’re kind of on an openness path where you can take it where you and the song want to go.
Doesn’t that take a special kind of communication within the band, so the song gets taken in the same direction?
All the bands that kind of share this philosophy have that sort of communication on stage. We’re paying more attention to the music and each other. The audience is tied into that too. They can see we’re communicating, they can see where the music is going.
Does all this mean, that, live performance is what’s most important for Gov’t Mule, more than the records?
As much as I’m very proud of our studio records, the live performances is where we come across, where the music comes across. Sometimes the studio performances is just a blueprint for what’s going to happen in the future. Sometimes you’ll play a song the same way 35, 40 times. Then you’re doing it one night and change it and it’s different from then on.
Taking a cue from bands before us, the two foundations being the Allman Brothers and the Grateful Dead, there has to be a balance between songs and jamming — just one or the other doesn’t work as a complete thing. If you feel a balance between the two, it can be more of one than the other, but still a balance, it makes a more satisfying show.”
So how long are you playing these days?
Three hours. Well, 2½ hours with a 30-minute break.
Is that the ideal length or could you play long, four or five hours?
On occasion, we have. When we did the Deepest End live DVD in New Orleans, we played for six hours. We can do it. Speaking of DVDs, we did it last year at the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, New York, one of our favorite venues. But it’s not something I’d want to do every night, play four, five, six hours. Normally, 2½ hours is about the right amount.”
I should have asked this earlier. How do you come up with the setlist? Do you do it right before the show or do you just wing it?
Usually, just before or sometime on the day of or maybe a day or two before, I’ll go back and look at what we played before when we’re coming into a city and make sure it’s completely different. Also, I’ll look at what we did the night before and, an important aspect is what we feel like playing that night.
Well, you won’t have to go back and look up a setlist here, you haven’t been here for so long, I don’t imagine anyone can remember exactly what you played.
That gives us a clean slate to start with. In those cases, we’ll get something from each period over the last 25 years.
Is that how you look at it, as periods for Gov’t Mule?
In a way. When I look at doing the setlist, I think about how it flows, from moment to moment. If we’re doing a more “professional” set, it might be just the greatest hits for over an hour. But when we’re doing these shows, it goes up and down, comes together. I pick songs to do that from all the periods.
You’ve played in front of hundreds of thousands and, I’m sure, in tiny clubs to less than a hundred. Is there an ideal sized venue for Gov’t Mule?
I think the best size for us is the small theater thing, 2,000 to 3,000 people. You get some of the intimacy you get with a small audience and you get that wave of energy that you get from a big audience. When we played for 70-, 100,000, you get that wave of energy, but not the connection. When you play the smallest places, you’ve got the connection, but sometimes not the energy.
The place you’re playing here, the Bourbon Theatre is about 800 or so.
There are a few places on this tour where we’re playing smaller venues like that. It’s really a treat for us. The audience is right on top of us. We love that.