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Govt Mule, Bowery Ballroom, NYC- 5/22

Just two weeks before its second annual Hunter Mountain festival, Gov’t Mule played a rare small show at New York’s Bowery Ballroom. It might as well have been called Bowery _Small_room because everything felt squeezed into the 550 person capacity venue. Matt Abts’ stadium sized drum kit was crammed between Warren’s double amp guitar rig and Andys Hess’s chest-high bass rig. Mule tech Brian Farmer was so crushed into his space behind Warren that he had to reach over piles of equipment just to hand Andy new basses between songs. While the band was playing, it felt like they were compressing the energy of a performance for a 5,000 seater into this small room. It was a loud, visceral experience that completely enveloped the crowd sort of like sitting on the bottom of the deep end of a pool and looking back up to the surface. Thank god for the earplugs the band handed out pre-show.

Though a Mule show of this size is a dream for hardcore fans, it was really a chance for the band to play some of the songs off of their new album for industry folk. Since recording High & Mighty this past spring at Willie Nelson’s studio outside of Austin, the band has refrained from playing most of the new songs live. It’s a way to keep them out of fan circulation and off of the internet, the theory being that fans will be more likely to buy the new CD if they’re still hungry for the new music. It’s a business move that makes sense for Mule, but it’s too bad that it doesn’t give the songs a chance to develop a life of their own on the road.

The show itself was a mix of old and new songs packaged into two sets that clocked in at under an hour each. Though the band was selling special T-shirts that read “High & Mighty, I Heard It FirstBowery Ballroom 5/22/06,” they only played a handful of the new songs. That’s not a bad thingit’s not easy to maintain enthusiasm for a new album played live start to finish.

“Mr. High and Mighty,” the first new song of the night, opened with an AC/DC type riff that had Warren rocking back his head and unleashing his inner rock star. “Brand New Angel,” sounded like Alice in Chains but had the familiar Mule theme of a search for personal salvation. The cover of Al Green’s “I’m A Ram” was reworked to give it a “Lively Up Yourself” reggae feela welcome change from the heaviness of Mule and not the first reggae sounding tune of the night. “A Million Miles From Yesterday,” the last new song of the first set was an almost poppy sing-along that owes something to the Edwin McCain-penned Mule regular “I’ll Be the One.”

The second set warmed up with some Mule classics before launching into the reggaeish “Unring the Bell.” Andy Hess anchored the song with thick dubbish basslines on his coral-pink Precision bass while Danny Louis’s organ complemented Warren’s reggae rhythms. The next new song, “Streamline Woman” was the best of the night, bringing together classic Mule and “Celebration Day”-style Zeppelin. “Endless Parade,” the last new song of the night temporarily brought the mood down with a mellow Dead vibe.

The short second set only lasted about 45 minutes and was followed by a single song encore, a beautiful cover of Jimmy Cliff’s “Many Rivers to Cross.” The Bowery stayed packed even after the house music came on, in the hope that the band would be back for a few more. It was another reminder that the show was kept short and accessible (i.e. extended drum and guitar solo free) for the industry folk. Hopefully it paid off, because it was a perfect representation of what this lineup can do. It’s hard to imagine anyone not feeding off of the energy and vibe of a huge band like Mule squeezed into such a small room. And hopefully everyone was smart enough to wear ear plugs!

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