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Published: 2004/02/08
by Benjy Eisen

Gov’t Mule, Wachovia Arena, Wilkes-Barre, PA- 1/31

Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania is in need of an upgrade. Has been for some time. Attempts to improve the downtown district have been met with bizarre resistance from residents, but, despite objections, an arena was finally constructed inside the city limits. The idea was that it would create jobs and swift-kick the local economic situation. The idea was that restaurants and hotels and retail stores would be lured into the arena's traffic path and profit mightily. The idea was that AHL hockey (Penguins) and AF2 arena football (Pioneers) would bring sports and spirit to the area. The idea was that ice shows and rock concerts and an annual visit from the Globetrotters would give kids, parents, and families something to do and something to look forward to. The Wachovia Arena was actually a good idea that, in hindsight, was actually a bad idea that, in actuality, was a good idea pulled off badly.

The invited parasitic businesses have come alright, and they've prospered as predicted. Restaurants from the Olive Garden to the Outback, and stores from Target to Old Navy, have opened profitable franchises nearby. The arena itself is also a success story, statistically. The Wilkes-Barre Penguins (farm team for the Pittsburgh Penguins) has the second best attendance in the entire league, selling out virtually every home game. Concerts also sell phenomenally well. Every event sells well.

The arena itself is horrible. Wretched. Disgraceful.

Constructed less than five years ago, the blueprints must have been drafted before the industrial revolution. The crushed concrete corridors recall dilapidated subway stations. The bathrooms are under-stalled. The entire interior is colorless. Even the parking lots are arranged poorly. Holding 10,800 concert seats, the arena was built for half that. But I'd like to go back on something I said earlier. Building the arena was not a "good idea pulled off badly." It was a good idea pulled off magnificently! Everybody wants to go to the arena! Nobody cares what for! If tickets are on-sale, they'll buy them. Acts that typically struggle in the secondary markets play to capacity crowds in Wilkes-Barre. It's a fact although it's not necessarily a desirable fact. For the town it is. But for the artist it ain't.

Carlos Santana once reportedly told Phish that when they played music, it reminded him of a garden where the audience was a flower, music was water, and the band was a hose. Well, what if the audience wasn't a flower? Would they still appreciate getting wet? In Wilkes-Barre sometimes the band is a self-contained garden, planted as scenery for a good date or as punctuation for a rowdy night out.

This particular night was overrun with large groups of unsupervised parents.

Not many of them were familiar with Gov't Mule. Considering the bill ("Kid Rock, with special guest Gov't Mule") that's not surprising. What is surprising is the number of people who weren't even familiar with Kid Rock. With a median age somewhere over 30, this was "leave the Kid at home and let the Adult's Rock." A night without the kids to relive headbanger glory.

Given the circumstance, it would've been convenient if the Mule was still "Deep Ending" it and brought in a marquee rocker like Jason Newsted on bass. Perhaps then the audience would've understood. As it stands, a mostly-full arena remained seated for Mule's entire set (my shock simultaneously grew and shrunk, shrunk and grew, when I discovered that they stayed seated for Kid Rock). Bandanas and wife-beaters and teased hair and fishnets and moustaches and jean jackets and eyeliner and stilettos all remained inexplicably immobile, docile…lifeless. These symbols of past-generation excess and debauchery looked, from a birds-eye view in Section 217, as though they were electronic action figures with the batteries ripped out of their backs and the power switch stuck in the off position.

That said, Gov't Mule's set itself was decent. You're expecting a review of the music and, patience dear readers, I'll get to that. But first, more of this and then I'll mix that in.

In the weeks leading up to the concert, I had been banging my head against my desk, rubbing my eyelids, and slamming my fists. I was plagued with The Discrepancy. "Why?" I asked, again and again. Why Kid Rock and Gov't Mule? What was the connection? In eighth grade I saw Neil Young with Sonic Youth and Social Distortion. It was a fantastically weird line-up, but even that made sense somehow. But Gov't Mule opening for Kid Rock? Why, I asked, why? Why tour together? What's the benefit? Did Gov't Mule want exposure to Kid Rock's audience and would Kid Rock's audience put up with it? Would the pairing later be called a brilliant move or a regrettable mistake?

Towards the end of "Bad Little Doggy," the sixth song in Mule's seven-song set, the answer became obvious. It hung visibly in the arena air, although of course nobody but me bothered to notice. So I took out my pad of paper and wrote it down: Warren Haynes and Kid Rock are artistic brethren. One rose to fame as the nimble-fingered replacement for Duane Allman. The other earned a reputation with his finger-in-the-air rhymes. One comes from the Deep South, the other from "north of Detroit, south of Heaven."

But poor Warren Haynes and poor Kid Rock. They both just want to rock out. The rock calls to them. It calls to them like the Ring calls to Frodo. And that's despite the fact that they earned their respective audiences elsewhere, a little bit to the left of the hard rock center that is at both of their core. Truthfully though, when you break down the cocktail, Kid Rock and Gov't Mule collectively are four parts Southern Rock, two parts metal, one part blues, and one part hip-hop. It's a potent and intoxicating drink that goes down deceptively smooth. Buying the first round for the audience, Haynes no doubt, consciously or not, played to this assumption. Moments into the "Driving Rain" opener, it was understood that Gov't Mule was pulling out their arena show the bass boomed off the back, the guitar screamed like sex in the back of a pick-up truck, and the kick-drum rattled every loose screw in the building. It was heavy, man! Made heavier, in a manner of speaking, by the sacrifices of playing like arena rockers: some of the spontaneity was lost. Some of the solos felt uncharacteristically cautious not musically, but socially. Instead of going "out there," the notes stayed "in here," close-by in case they needed to be called home. Doubting the audience, Gov't Mule showed their pony face first.

One hour later, the entire arena would be brought momentarily to its feet to celebrate Kid Rock's abbreviated version of "Free Bird." In the meantime, nobody seemed to notice when Haynes quick-teased the Allman Brothers' "Jessica" towards the end of "Soulshine." But I did…and I enjoyed it immensely.

So did he really cut the jams, trim the fat, and give the audience the show he thought they wanted? At points it came across that way, but then again, it could've just been where his head was at.

It wasn't until the closing number of "Blind Man in the Dark" that the band finally felt the audience was ready for them to let the Mule out of the bag and extend the song for, well, a good two or three minutes longer than the album version (and three or four minutes longer than some in the audience might have liked). Naturally it was the musical highlight of the set.

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