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Published: 2003/11/15
by Tom Baker

Gov’t Mule / Chris Robinson and The New Earth Mud, The Tabernacle, Atlanta, GA- 11/7

The Rebirth of the Mule tour came through Atlanta like a sneak attack from Godzilla. Sure, Gov't Mule had enough sound and star power (with tonight's guest shots from Chris Robinson and none other than Gregg Allman) for an audience five or ten times this size, but the reduced scale is part of the beauty of it all. Mule leader Warren Haynes and Allman, along with their cohorts in the prolific Haynes' other big gig, the Allman Brothers Band, may have played in front of eighty-something thousand this summer at Bonnaroo, but here's where they let it all hang out, clearly energized by the intimacy of the Tabernacle venue. The two-set, three-plus hour performance covered the usual broad array of touchstones, from Mule originals to Neil Young to Otis Redding to Led Zeppelin to Frank Zappa, and left little doubt that despite wielding enough aural weight for just about any arena in the world, Gov't Mule is more comfortable and just that much better when they're a little bit of a secret.

Andy Hess has stepped into the void created by the death of Allen Woody and temporarily filled over the last three years by such diverse bass luminaries as Dave Schools, Oteil Burbridge, Les Claypool, and Jason Newsted, giving Gov't Mule a stability that the fill-ins, for all their talent and star wattage, could not. Rather than the one-offish sense created by the rotating roster of bassists, Gov't Mule just feels like a real band again, on a mission to bring the pleasures of an old-time power trio back to the masses one theater at a time. In a live setting, especially one with the generous acoustics of the Tabernacle, Hess' dense but pliable basslines, polished by the stately chug and coloring of Danny Louis' keys, dovetail nicely with the punch-and-kick drum attack of Matt Abts, creating a bone structure for jams as meaty as a Memphis rib, particularly on "Thorazine Shuffle," the audience sing-along "Don't Step on the Grass Sam," or a raucous cover of Zeppelin's "No Quarter."

But Haynes is the star of the show, and deservedly so, a guitarist virtually peerless among the current crop of players for texture and stylistic breadth; he's the jam scene's secret weapon, and he knows how to sing, too. I've heard or seen his work with ABB, Widespread Panic, the Dave Matthews Band, and moe. this year alone, and there's a reason he's so well traveled and in such demandequally at home in Southern rock rave ups or sighing slow-train blues, Haynes goes well with just about anything or anyone. Holding court here as the frontman instead of his frequent role as Honored Guest, Haynes was more than capable of pulling his weight in a starring role, coaxing his instrument into spitting fire or burning slow, sawing off great hunks of power-football rock or dashing out conversational riffs with the style and grace of a guy who's never had a bad time with a guitar in his hands.

Chris Robinson continues his retro experimentation with New Earth Mud, but with a decidedly mellower bent than he showed with his previous outfit the Black Crowes. Robinson still appears to be physically channeling "Let It Be"-era Lennon and hasn't lost that soul-shaking testimonial thunder, particularly when it comes to numbers like "Kids That Ain't Got None" or "Ride," but although certain Mud tunes like "Sunday Sound" had the feel of a Crowes outtake on a day there was only decaf in the studio kitchen, something tells me the Black Crowes were always happier stomping it out than playing in the gentle ebb-and-flow of a low folk tide like the Grateful Dead's "Sugaree." Accompanied by Paul Stacey (guitar), Jeremy Stacey (drums), George Reiff (bass) and George Laks (keyboards), Robinson has started building a new groove that bears watching; I don't know if I'd expect him to make a wild left turn into wholly experimental territory with NME, but there's something to be said for knowing your strength and sticking to it. Meanwhile, Haynes' tendency to trek all over the musical map has helped create a free-for-all swap meet air around Mule shows, and no one was surprised when Robinson and Paul Stacey emerged from the wings for a cover of "Southern Man" and Redding's "Hard to Handle'popularized in the early 90's by the Crowesto bring the first set to a close. That might've been a nice enough guest treat for the night if not for the persistent rumors of a Gregg Allman sighting that had been floating around the venue at least since midday. Sure enough, when the house lights dropped again and the estimable Allman dropped into his seat next to Louis for an opening volley of "Just Before the Bullets Fly," "Stormy Monday," "Soulshine," and "Dreams," the packed house reached fever pitch, the crowd gleefully accepting the appearance of a true Southern rock deity and regional favoritewe went to see Gov't Mule, and a miniature Allman Brothers Band show broke out.

Guests or no guests, though, Gov't Mule proved this tour stop worthy of its name; don't call it "rebirth" unless you're really going to show the beast is alive and kicking all over again, which they did. Haynes is so generous with his time and talent that I feel a little funny for bagging on other musicians in any piece about him, but I just can't resist comparing this show to the appearance of the relentlessly overhyped Strokes at this same theatre just two nights later, which went on for about a third of the time but garnered easily three times the notice from the Atlanta press. Meanwhile, Warren Haynes was ranked #23 in Rolling Stone's recent "100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time" list, and yet still seems to be in virtual stealth mode; the Rolling Stone list is complete RS BS, but you already knew thatwhat's interesting is that even with such high placement in a mainstream mag it seems like Haynes & co. still fly under the radar. But even after the endlessly parroted four-star reviews for the Strokes and their tedious ilk start to feel awfully forced (it's already coming to that; seems almost like none of the critics championing them really believe it anymore), we'll be fine as long as bands like Gov't Mule are still on the road. Forget the Strokes / Vines / Hives / White Stripes, Gov't Mule and their many friends are acting as the real saviors of rock n' roll, only they'd probably tell you that rock was never so arrogant that it ever really needed saving; you don't need magazine covers and spotlight reviews if you believe. If you believe, it's all good, and you can certainly believe this: the Mule is indeed reborn, which is welcome news as long as you want some music that you can really wrap your ears around and live inside, instead of just caterwauling hipster posers or guys looking for airtime on "MTV Cribs." Shhhh, let's keep it to ourselves.

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