Gov’t Mule, Beacon Theater, NYC- 10/11
The most profound impact that any one performance has ever had on my opinion of an artist was on September 21, 2000. The show, of course, was the One for Woody benefit; the performer, Warren Haynes. Now, I was already a big fan of the guy. But at that marathon show, during which he was on stage for all but three songs, his performance transcended sheer musicality, artistry, and became athletic, Olympian. I went from fandom to awe. And it wasn’t awe as in, teenage girl at Shea Stadium for the Beatles in ’65; no, it was more like the way you feel when you see a terrible storm fifty miles off in the distance, you feel the air cool around you, hear the leaves rustle, you know its coming your way. It is a force of nature, and you know it canand likely willshake the very earth on which you stand.
On that night, Haynes used the healing power of music to exorcize his pain over the loss of musical partner and life friend Alan Woody. It was a personal thing, but it was an exorcism for all of us, I think. Woody loomed large over that showliterally (through the backdrop slide show), and figuratively (by his absence). At the Beacon Theater this past Friday, he seemed to loom almost equally large. Maybe his presence has haunted every Gov’t Mule show since his death; the two albums the band has released since then, The Deep End volumes 1 and 2, take their title from a song with the line, “On the banks of the deep end, I lost my best friend.” On Friday, though, in another epic, Olympian, marathon performance, Haynes and the Mule turned the pain of profound loss into the cathartic joy of redemption— starting with “The Real Thing,” culminating over three hours later with “Soulshine.” Channeling pain into joy— this is the quintessential function of that music we call the blues. And at core, the thundering power trio and southern-rock-influenced sound of the Mule has always been a souped-up version of the deep, deep blues.
Warren immediately set the mood for the show with his opening 3-song solo acoustic set“The Real Thing”, the Woody elegy he recorded with Phil Lesh and Friends; U2’s “One” (“and I can't be holding on to what you got, when all you got is hurt”); and another song he recorded with Lesh, the Jerry Garcia remembrance “Patchwork Quilt.”
Then Matt Abts, keyboardist Danny Louis, and bassist George Porter Jr. came out, everyone plugged in, and Haynes threw the switch on that unmistakable Mule whomp as the band kicked into “Bad Little Doggie” and “Rocking Horse.” “Time to Confess”, from the new album, came next, the song Porter contributed to. Then what may be, sonically at least, the quintessential Mule stomp“Thorazine Shuffle.” Four songs into the full-band set, and already you are neck-deep in that big, vast, lumbering, dinosaurs-walking-the-earth, power trio sludge (this is a good thing).
Then Rob Barraco from the Lesh quintet joined on keyboards, fleshing out the band’s sound for the remainder of the first set. A slow, mournful “When Doves Cry” (which had people singing along, many of whom did not realize what it was they were singing along with until the “This is what it sounds like” line came around) folded seamlessly over to “Beautifully Broken”, then back to “Doves”, and finally, back to “Broken.” The lynchpin of that last segue was a slow, exquisite guitar solo, which fit each song so perfectly that you really didn’t know which one it went with. And that, of course, was the point.
Then a poignant “Banks of the Deep End”, which along with “Beautifully Broken” and “The Real Thing” formed the emotional yin to the “Thorazine Shuffle”, “Bad Little Doggie” phat yang of the first set. Next came a positively scorching take on the Credence song “Effigy” from Deep End Volume 1, which seemed to go on and on, leaping beyond the constraints of normal time. (“Who is burnin’, who is burnin’”) It was a fitting highlight, because Warren and the band were on fire. “Lay Your Burden Down” closed out as perfect a first set as you could ask for.
Set two opened up with Greg Rzab from the Black Crowes on bass joining Haynes, Abts, and Louis. They opened the set with “Larger Than Life”, from Dose (with the climactic lines, “You think you know something but you don't know nothing/ Everybody knows that death is larger than life.”) Then a thundering take on the Hendrix classic, “If 6 Was 9.”
The next segment— “Devil Likes It Slow”, No Need to Suffer”, and the Led Zep chestnut “Trampled Underfoot”had a full, resonant, almost dreamy quality, Rzab’s bass work standing out and filling the air. This may have been where the musical transmutation began to take holdthe Hendrix tune, then the Zeppelin tune, serving to pull musical magic from fallen heroes, a way of using loss to fuel sheer rock power.
Andy Hess, another Crowes bassist, replaced Rzab as the mood became somewhat more upbeat for the extended funk workout, which segues “Mule” into Tower of Power’s “What is Hip”, then into a “Third Stone” tease and finally back into “Mule.” Jimmy Vivino joined in on guitar as the band kept things on the funk-and-up for “Sco-Mule”, a jazzy 2-guitar instrumental romp. Roger Glover from Deep Purple(!) replaced Hess on bass for “Goin’ Down” and “Maybe I’m a Leo”, slathering on an extra layer of old school heavy metal thunder sludge. Through it all, of coursethe shuttling on and off of musicians, the virtual waltz through the classic rock songbookit was Haynes’s bluesy, raunchy, heavy, elegant guitar that kept the whole thing together.
Then, like a wise old shaman putting everything into perspective, Haynes turned to the Van Morrison classic “Into the Mystic”, Rzab returning to bass duties:
“And when that foghorn blows I will be coming home
And when the foghorn blows I want to hear it I don't have to fear it
And I want to rock your gypsy soul
Just like way back in the days of old
And magnificently we will flow into the mystic.”
Ask not for whom the horn blows, if you see what I mean
And there it could have ended. But nowith the room drained, physically and emotionally and spiritually, Haynes and Abts had one task left at handanother fallen comrade, another bass player to remember. And so the oddly familiar strains of the Who’s “Eminence Front” filled the hot, smoky theater (Come on join the party/ Dress to kill/ Dress yourself, dressed to kill.”) A mighty, mighty show, and off they walked.
The band ended as they had begunHaynes, Abts, Louis, Porterand Haynes led them through a subdued excerpt from Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb”, which has always been a heroin song, and a song about innocence lost (“When I was a child I caught a fleeting glimpse/ Out of the corner of my eye/ I turned to look but it was gone/ I cannot put my finger on it now/ The child is gone, the dream is done/ And I have become/ Comfortably numb.”) It was soft, slow, and eerily elegiac. And then, perfectly, inevitably, right into the jamband gospel hymnal “Soulshine.” “Gotta let your soul shine, shine till the break of day.” And then Haynes kicks into that riff, that redemptive solo, putting an exclamation point on the song’s message, driving song and show home.
At this point I can’t say enough about Warren Haynes. It seems as if there is no song he can’t perform, no band he can’t improve, no emotion he can’t convey, wither with his guitar or his soulful voice. No mountain he cannot climb, artistically speaking. He is a big, powerful man, yet he is a soft-spoken, thoughtful gentleman.
I thought I was too old to have heroes. I may have been wrong.