Two summers ago a friend and I drove from Boston to San Diego. When we weren’t listening to Weezer’s Pinkerton and Neil Young’s Harvest Moon, we listened to the double-album Deepest End from blues-rock quartet Gov’t Mule. As we drove through the Kansas plains, singer/guitarist Warren Haynes played solos so tasteful that corn sprouted from the earth. Just east of Boulder, Colorado, a particular lick coupled with Haynes’s thick, gravelly voice in the final chorus of “Time to Confess” made the face of an 11,000-foot mountain implode. I saw this. I was not driving, but I urged my friend to swerve, which he did, and the car suffered only a minor windshield scrape.
Later, as we burned through Las Vegas and coasted into Southern California, Haynes again hit a series of notes so melodic and perfect that the ocean, for three whole minutes, froze. What could I do, then, but stare at the frozen ocean and now-spidering windshield crack and think, Something remarkable is happening?
Some have claimed that Gov’t Mule sounds similar to Wolfmother (with whom the band is playing on September 9 at McCarren Park Pool), but you shouldn’t believe that. It’s way off, and it’s a disservice to Gov’t Mule. With seven studio albums and four live LPs, including the stellar Deepest End live series, Gov’t Mule, existing mostly on the heavier (and talented) end of the jam-band circuit, is an established leader. But as everyone knows, with leadership comes responsibility.
So who better to shoulder the forward movement of solid, classic-rock-oriented, guitar-driven blues-rock than Warren Haynes. Well-known for his aforementioned guitar heroics, Haynes has played and toured with — and is claimed as a member by — Allman Brothers Band, the Dead, and Phil Lesh and Friends, in addition to being a solo artist.
Unfortunately, if you’re expecting the new Mule album, High and Mighty, to cause a paradigm shift, expect disappointment. The songs, like Haynes’s voice and instrument, are solid, tight, melodic and powerful. They usually start with a memorable distorted guitar lick, build toward a solid bridge, a slightly louder chorus, and somewhere there will be a totally awesome, guitar solo that is never egregious. “So Weak, So Strong,” follows this pattern. So does “Child of the Earth” and “Brighter Days.” The lyrics are mostly of secondary importance: “Save my weary soul/ Take my from this hole/ Lead my to the light/ Or just take me through the night,” from “Brand New Angel.” It’s not poetry.
Only on album standout “Nothing Again” does Haynes tell a story full of unfamiliar cities, die-hard dreams, shady characters offering drugs and promises. That it’s more or less a rip-off, in theme, of Tom Petty’s “Into the Great Wide Open” doesn’t really matter. It’s a great song, steeped in the formulaic traditions of all great classic rock. Build to the chorus, sing it loud, wail on the guitar, repeat.
I don’t mention drummer Matt Abts, keyboardist Danny Louis, or bassist Andy Hess — though they are all deserving of great praise — because without Haynes, there is no Gov’t Mule. This is not to say the other musicians are expendable, they certainly are not — Abts is a Grammy-nominated drummer — and their playing is powerful throughout High and Mighty. But like the great Allman’s songs, the band is here to support, and in the end it’s all about that loud sing-along chorus and hummable guitar solo. Like great jazz drummers, bassists, and pianists, these guys know their role, and they tirelessly, and humbly, perform it.
Let’s go back four paragraphs. I mentioned Haynes’s “guitar heroics.” But “heroics” is not the right word. Haynes is no Steve Vai, no Yngve. He simply plays the right notes at the right time, and with the phrasing and attention to space of an accomplished jazz musician. Hero? Too loaded a word. Haynes is no hero. And Gov’t Mule is no hero, either. The band plays outstanding live shows and makes solid records. Should more be expected of them? I don’t know. High and Mighty is no better than Deja Voodoo (2004), the band’s previous album. But it’s certainly no worse. It’s simply another strong collection of twelve songs. And the next Mule album will probably be just as good. And I’ll buy it. And look for me at the show, too. I’ll be with everybody else, playing a wicked air-guitar.
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