Gov’t Mule, Riviera Theatre, Chicago, IL – 10/31
Photo by Norman Sands
It was a cold, clear night in Chicago when veteran hard rockers Gov’t Mule came to town, hitting the Windy City with a stellar Halloween performance featuring a second set comprised entirely of Jimi Hendrix covers. This would be a night to remember; Warren Haynes – whose years of hard work as frontman and lead guitarist for Gov’t Mule, along with his current tenure with the Allman Brothers Band and various stints with The Dead, among others, have earned him recognition and a permanent place in the pantheon of guitar gods – would be donning the musical guise of one of rock and roll’s greatest legends and arguably the best guitarist to have ever lived. The anticipation was killing me to say the least.
Inside Chicago’s Riviera Theatre the energy was palpable, reaching a fever pitch as Haynes and the rest of the Gov’t Mule boys stepped onstage. Amidst a cacophany of hoots and hollers from the liquored up crowd of Halloween revelers the band wasted no time as drummer Matt Abts, easing into a long, slow rhythm, paved the way for Haynes, whose sliding licks signaled the buildup into “Blind Man in the Dark.” Throwing the intro lick to Hendrix’s version of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” into his first solo of the night, Haynes teased the audience with a taste of what was to come.
The atmosphere, heavy from the start, would continue throughout the night; as one of the premier ambassadors of contemporary hard rock, Gov’t Mule is not known for putting on lackluster shows. And on Halloween night in Chicago they delivered. Tearing through a slew of songs from the vast musical catalogue they’ve built over the last 18 years, the band hit every era. But they made sure to pay extra homage to their roots: in addition to “Blind Man in the Dark,” they performed “Larger Than Life,” “Gameface” and a spectacular, 12 minute jam-fueled “Thorazine Shuffle” that closed the first set – all songs from their second album, 1998’s Dose. Also highlighting the first set was “Fallen Down,” which featured an inspired solo by Haynes, who brought it all back down before launching the band into a full-blown instrumental of the Grateful Dead’s “The Other One.” It was a pleasant surprise for the packed house of costumed drunkards, who made a lot of noise that matched the ferocity of the performance.
The second set proved to be a lesson in musical virtuosity. If the first set was all business, then the second set was all play. And by play, I mean guitar work – the incendiary kind. Haynes, taking the songs of Jimi Hendrix and playing them in front of a crowd, brought to life the music of a cultural icon, a man who changed the face of rock and roll by turning up the distortion and electrifying the ears of an entire generation.
After an audio recording from an old Hendrix interview was played for the audience, the band started into “EXP,” the intro to Axis: Bold as Love. From there the musicians moved into “Are You Experienced?”, the title track from the Jimi Hendrix Experience album of the same name, before continuing on with a full set of tunes gleaned from all three of the 60s supergroup’s studio albums. Fans were treated to a number of Hendrix classics, including a down-and-dirty “Freedom,” the forward-rolling “Crosstown Traffic,” and a fiery “Stone Free” that melted into a “Third Stone from the Sun” jam that, with its distortion laden intensity and heavy-handed psychedelic flavorings, had the crowd eating out of the band’s proverbial hand. The group also made time for ballads – playing Hendrix’s “Angel” and “1983… (A Merman I Should Turn to Be” – as well as the blues; their rendition of Hendrix’s version of Elmore James’ “Bleeding Heart” was a 15 minute showcase of Haynes’ guitar shredding capabilities.
But when it comes to measuring the capacity to match Hendrix’s musical prowess, the true test – which Haynes soundly passed – is one’s ability to not simply mimic Hendrix, but to accurately reflect the trademark intensity and power of his playing. In what would be one of the highlights of the night, Haynes demonstrated just that with a dead-on rendition of “Machine Gun,” one of Hendrix’s most compelling and explosive compositions. That, coupled with an equally intense “Little Wing” that, in its execution, soared and screamed to the soul, was proof enough that Warren Haynes possesses the chops, raw energy and unbridled passion to not only set himself apart from other artists, but which also allowed him to effectively interpret the music of perhaps the greatest guitarist to ever walk the Earth.