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In Memorium: Allen Woody, A Heart in Dixie

A perennial saying states that one must not speak ill of the dead. Mercifully, in the case of recently departed Gov’t Mule bassist (Douglas) Allen Woody, no “shade” (as they say in the Black Gay community) need be thrown on his character. And, yes, that’s despite the drama and myths and lore that have always surrounded the Allman Brothers Band, which Woody exited in 1997 with his main man Warren Haynes in order to give devotion to the Mule full-time.

When the celestially blessed Kings of the Jam aka the Allmans reformed in 1989, reviving the Faithful with the weighty boxed set, Dreams (Polydor), and new studio album, Seven Turns (Epic), they had not only Ivoryman Johnny Neel and David Allan Coe/Dickey Betts mainstay Haynes on board but Woody as well. And that fascinating, questing, kind, stand-up boy from Tennessee —- the down home place Speech described as a haven of peace during that same early-90s era of lush, striving rock music —- brought what some might term a thrilling, breath-taking Hillbilly Thunder to the Allmans’ patented sound with his bass-thumping. The Norse notion of a Hammer of the Gods is usually identified with Led Zeppelin but Woody inexorably infused that shuddering, heartbeat quality to the Brothers’ mix of boogie, stomp, spirituals, blues, ballads and modal jazz. His sensual work was the perfect beat complement to the all-encompassing sea of African and Celtic polyrhythms furnished by founding drummers (the immortal) Jaimoe and Butch Trucks, as well as Borinquen-descended conga spitfire Marc Quinones. Woody’s multi-instrumental gifts (bass, mandolin, voice, whatever) contributed immeasurably to ABB tours since Dreams in 1989, the incendiary Black Crowes runs in 1996 (get tapes if you dare!) and even shows as impromptu as the great Power Jams at Manhattan’s Wetlands Preserve to celebrate their anniversary in March 1999 —- the bottom duels there, between Oteil Burbridge and Woody, should be disseminated for posterity.

For these reasons and more, Allen Woody, is destined to remain legend long after we have all crumbled into dust. At a maudlin site online —- —- there is a claim that “The idea of remembrance has been with mankind for many thousands of years. In addition to building burial grounds and pyramids we now have the opportunity of cyberspace.” Well, Hittin’ The Web (key ABB site) and will no doubt keep the cyber presence of Woody thriving but the fancy of erecting monuments to his greatness is an outmoded form of celebration and irrelevant. Hopefully, candlelit vigils, misguided “tribute” tunes and VH1 “movies that rock” -style treatment won’t follow in the wake of the upcoming memorial concert at Manhattan’s Roseland; such gestures are unworthy of a musical maverick and Original like Woody. His daughter Savannah is a testament to his flesh and spirit; the recordings —- official and live —- he made with the Brothers as well as with his Mule bredren Warren and Matt Abts will always testify for his spirit. Rock and roll has always defied codification if it was any good and Woody, lured by the Beatles, certainly aspired to be a rock star (with lovely Danny Clinch ikons to bear witness after the fact). No one knows how the world truly perceives them while they’re on this planet but Woody’s star certainly shined brightly.not just for folks like Gregg Allman and Jimmy Herring and Kevn Kinney and Bernie Worrell and Kirk West but all the rest of us too. Every time you entered some bar or grand hall to catch the Mule in action, that almost beatific countenance of our way gone brother captured, delighted and inspired us all. Woody may not be as ethereally tragic as the late genius Jeff Buckley nor his afterlife as storied as Delta Blues martyr Robert Johnson’s yet he is assured something more divine and heartfelt than mere cult legend status.

Often scorned by the rockcrit establishment and their lackey, media-whore, two-thumbs-up junior copycats, the Mule (as their erstwhile bandmates the ABB) have a proven track record for live fire and compositional genius, despite the likes of Rolling Stone hacks dismissing their complex, intense sound as mere “sludge.” Fortunately for we, the fans, the Mule are crusaders after their own Truth, ignoring the often uncharitable aspersions cast by rockbiz types to pursue a higher order of sound akin to that of Woody’s hero Neil Young, whom the former dubbed the “King of Simplicity.” Playing songs down to the bone is also something Mule compatriots the Black Crowes —- who will appear at the Roseland memorial concert “One For Woody” —- have been consistently “guilty” of in a time of tinned tune resurgence and lightweights unable to sing having their voices pitch corrected both on wax and onstage. Because the Mule (and the Crowes, and friends like Jimmy Herring and the Derek Trucks Band) suit up in their sub-biker gear to play and aren’t content to render you the version you heard on the radio (if you’re lucky enough to catch them on radio!) or limit the song to three minutes if they’re suddenly struck by the Holy Ghost and sent spinning off into improvisatory highways and byways (could you imagine the eponymous debut’s “Trane” so imprisoned?), they and their inimitable sound are deemed anathema to today’s numbed youth. At the risk of showing my age and my ass, I proclaim that “getting behind the Mule” will not only entertain you on a night out in the venues but restore your weary soul. Yes, Warren Haynes is the guiding light of this trio, but Matt and Woody were equally indispensable, their contributions myriad and often illusory. Don’t let Woody’s music be as fleeting as the breath of life. Honor him, honor him.

Around the time of Dose’s release (the second studio album), Woody said, “In so many ways, we [Gov’t Mule] rely on spontaneity and unpredictability: you can get electrocuted at any time.” Thanks for the shocks, the white lightnin’ and the love, Brotherman.

A musician’s life is always very difficult to make sense of, even when they’re performing, composing, cavorting and raising hell (and consciousness) right before you. And rock was not meant to be a mausoleum culture, for all that there’s a current booming business in rock necrophilia. So one doesn’t want to burden Woody with deep thoughts, regrets, teary recollections and convenient rockcrit constraints. Obviously, at times in his all-too-brief sojourn with us he found it difficult to “lay his burden down” as the great Warren-Ben Harper duet describes on the Mule’s most recent studio album Life Before Insanity (Capricorn). Because his death seems destined to remain mysterious and pass into apocrypha, there will no doubt persist a cabal of gossips and detractors until the next “thrill” surfaces out of Rock & Roll Babylon. But the key thing to recollect is the delight and freedom of Woody, the quirkiness of his dolphin tattoos, trippy tees and funny hats. These, coupled with the omnipotence of his music are what matter.this is what always matters and remains to us from musicians that truly touch us. That is all the pure-hearted rock fan knows on earth and all we need know.

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