Gov’t Mule:
HTN Issue #12

by Joe Bell

A FAMILIAR LOOKING SHORT GUY WITH VIVID TATTOOS ALL over his arms stepped up to the microphone in front of a lively crowd and in his newly obtained Southern drawl said, “What we got here . . . is something you ain’t never seen before . . . and you’re likely to see time and time again! So let’s give it to them Macon, Georgia—we got Matt Abts, Allen Woody, Warren Haynes . . . music fer yer ass . . . Gov’t Mule!!!” The stand-up, sold-out crowd started roaring after that and didn’t stop. Beneath a full moon on June 11, 1994, this trio of players tore the roof off in their world premiere at the Elizabeth Reed Music Hall. Even for those familiar with the members of the band, it was considered an exceptional beginning. Warren (guitar & vocals), Woody (bass), and Matt (drums) kicked ass, plain and simple!

What had heightened the anticipation of the vocal Macon crowd was the unknown—this was a new mix of players that was a whole new happening. The group featured two entrenched members of the Allman Brothers Band who were good friends and very tight musically, as well as a drummer who had toured with BHLT, the Dickey Betts Band, and had played with Warren on Dickey’s killer album, Pattern Disruptive. Each player shared common influences and a mutual kinship for how the music should be played, but just as importantly they each individually brought something different to the group. The sounds they delivered came out with focus and intensity, full of heavy, heavy blooze loaded with psychedelic streaks of Zeppelin, Cream, Free, Hendrix, Mountain, and early ZZ Top, along with shades of Miles Davis, Coltrane, and interpretations from older blues influences.

The performance was impressive for many reasons, but especially because of the improvisation. These guys had only played together five or six times, but the fit between musicians was so natural that it all came together on stage. Warren told me that when he hooked up with Allen Woody in the Allman Brothers Band, he immediately knew that Woody and Matt would play great together—they both approach music with a reckless abandon and adventurous kind of spirit. After seeing them perform, reckless abandon seems an understatement! In fact, when I asked Allen to describe the music to me he said, “It’s like an earthquake with an on/off switch!” As vibrant as Woody is in the Allman Brothers Band, the extra room available in a trio brought out tremendous creativity. Allen was climbing up and down that fret board, really pushing the bass out front and Matt Abts followed suit, his dual bass drums, tom toms and cymbals delivering interesting jazz measures that enhanced the guitar playing and punctuated the spaces between solos. The songs had not been played enough to have any real concrete structure and that brought out the musicianship even more, as each player experimented with his own separate and collective groove. The shifts in musical timing, melodic calls and responses, key changes, and divergent melodies came together and separated with ease. Lyrically, there was a moody, dark, soulful backdrop created by the words Warren painted for us on the canvas. It was a special night to remember for both the musicians and the audience.

On the day of Gov’t Mule’s debut, my wife Vicky and I drove down from Atlanta and stopped by the Big House to check in. Everyone was milling around, preparing for the performance that night and you could feel the anticipation in the air. I found out that Warren, Woody, and Matt had been staying there for the last several days pulling songs together and practicing in the old music room (now the Archive Room). They would usually start rehearsing early in the afternoon and play till the AM, jamming and hammering out the arrangements and melodies, lyrics and solos. One night they worked out a number of arrangements acoustically—it must have been incredible! I thought how fitting it was that new music was being born at the epicenter of where it all began. Every one of the members in the band credited the Big House with good vibes and felt that Macon, Georgia, was the right place to kick off the Mule. That night at the Elizabeth Reed Music Hall, a significant volume of new music was introduced and a few of the songs Warren and Allen had written for the Allman Brothers were presented to a sold out crowd that included Chuck Leavell. Gov’t Mule closed out the night with an unbelievable, probably never-to-be-repeated, three slide guitar version of “Wang Dang Doodle” with Warren, Derek Trucks, and Tim Brooks all on smoking slide guitar. If that song had lasted all night long I don’t believe anyone would have left!

The first time that Warren, Matt, and Woody all played together was about two years ago when the Brothers were on a West Coast swing. They ended up at a little club in Los Angeles called the Captain’s Cabin where Matt was doing a gig with some friends of his. A reviewer for a local newspaper happened to be there and wrote excitedly about it the next day, saying that it was a fresh approach and that these guys should consider forming their own band! Stimulated by the jam, they gathered again during a break in spring of 1994 at Telstar, Bud Snyder’s studio in Sarasota, and put down tracks to four demo songs: “Left Coast Groovies,” “World of Difference,” “Mother Earth,” and “Mr. Big.” It was the first time that they had gone into a studio together and approached playing on any kind of serious level. Their intuition had been right, as the band’s sound immediately jelled and all four songs they recorded at that sessions ended up being re-recorded later for the CD! It also began a period of immense creativity for all of the members in the band. Whereas Warren had written songs for the Tales of Ordinary Madness CD over a number of years and for no particular band, he was now writing fast and furious with Gov’t Mule in mind. Allen Woody also contributed his growing song-writing skills to a number of tunes, and with Matt’s capable hands on the drums everything was falling into place. After the Big House rehearsals and with a few Southern shows under their belts, the three musicians had the right to be pleased with the results of their efforts.

About a month later, on the day after the Allman Brothers played to a sold-out Atlanta audience, Warren and I got together to talk about the Mule. One of the subjects that we touched on was how the members of the Allman Brothers Band use their breaks to experiment with and enjoy other musical talents and styles, and as a result come back to the Allman Brothers Band with fresh ideas. This kind of freedom has allowed Allen and Warren to pursue a side of their talents that is distinctly different from the Allmans. To quote Warren, “Duane was a very big inspiration to me growing up musically. The Allman Brothers were one of my favorite bands and Duane was one of my favorite guitar players. But there were a number of other guitar players that I looked at the same way, like Hendrix, Eric Clapton, and Jeff Beck, to name a few. There were a lot of great players that I was very influenced by, and if I were playing with Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce and we were playing Cream songs, I would tend to play a lot more like Clapton and pay more homage to him. If I were playing with Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell and we were playing Hendrix songs, then I would tend to pay more respect to Hendrix. I learned immeasurable amounts from each of these guys, because that’s the way you learn. But it’s one of those things that I think maybe takes some people by surprise. It’s not that I’m doing anything different than I’ve always done . . . it’s only that I’m doing something different than people have seen me do with the Allman Brothers Band.”

Different music than the Allman Brothers? Absolutely! It’s like Warren told me, “I’ve always said, it wouldn’t be fair to myself or the Allman Brothers for my music to sound like theirs. If I was a new artist who came out and released a solo record that sounded like the Allman Brothers, then everybody would say, ‘Oh, you’re just rippin’ off the Allman Brothers.’ But, since I’m part of the band, people expect that a little more, which in a way puts me in an awkward position.” I think Warren and Woody handle this well by playing in their live shows several of the tunes they penned for the Allman Brothers. It is a compliment to them that those songs satisfy the crowds appetite for the familiar, having now become Allman Brothers Band standards! Although the music is dissimilar, many of the same traits that have helped the Brothers have served the Mule as well. They have played their new songs into shape in front of live audiences that are seeing them for the first or, if lucky, second time. Fresh approaches to different songs have cropped up nightly with improvisation being the lifeblood of their ever-evolving sound. One of the coolest things Warren told me is that the Mule has these “in” doors and these “out” doors that they can go through and back musically, so the songs remain improvisational and that’s the way they want to keep it; they don’t want to ever play the same thing twice. Sound familiar? In addition, one of the key ingredients to the Allman Brothers Band and to Gov’t Mule is that while all of the players excel in their playing, just as importantly they know how to listen to each other—a quality critical to a band that bases the enjoyment of their music on the merits of their improvisation.

Over the next six months, between Allman Brothers Band tours, things began to move rather quickly for Gov’t Mule as they were booked into a number of different venues throughout the Southeast, Northeast and Colorado. The Mule quickly started a widespread buzz where, without an album released, they were selling out thousand seat halls. After a great show at Wetlands, they were signed on the spot by Relativity Records. By this time they had written and were beginning to play live a substantial number of new tunes. Thankfully, Gov’t Mule supports live taping at their shows and there are a quite a few recordings that chart the growth and progression of their songs during this period. With all of the backing now in place, their thoughts naturally turned to the recording of a CD. During the extended winter break that the Allman Brothers traditionally take, they planned a 40-day tour of the Southeast and Colorado to go out and put the finishing touches on the 15 or 20 songs they had worked up. Playing those songs night after night for their first extended tour was the perfect preparation for the recording sessions. It enabled the band to settle in and tighten up the songs without losing their freshness. Matt told me, “Gov’t Mule spent two weeks in the South, two weeks in the Rockies, took a week off and then recorded the album, which was just the way to do it. We were really together!” “The [bass] sound wouldn’t work [with the Allman Brothers Band], but it’s perfect for this. It’s murky, it’s dark, it’s brown and muddy all the way down to the basement!”

Mike Barbiero, a well-known producer with a resume that includes everyone from Blues Traveler to Guns ’n’ Roses to James Brown and Tesla, was initially selected by Gov’t Mule to produce a song that they were contributing to an upcoming NORML compilation. It was an old Steppenwolf song Woody picked called “Don’t Step on the Grass, Sam.” It’s a completely different version than the original, and if you have seen Gov’t Mule live then you’ve enjoyed listening to Warren preach the lyrics and Matt and Woody turn it into a smoldering, smokin’ song! Warren and Mike had known each other for a while and got a chance to work together on the last Blues Traveler CD when Warren was asked to come in and play a slide solo. After that, when the others in the band met Mike and worked with him on the NORML contribution, they all agreed the fit was right and wanted him to produce the upcoming CD. When they first met, Allen recalled telling Mike that he wanted to capture a sound like Felix Pappalardi of Mountain on some of the songs. Woody always liked him and thought he sounded cool in a trio. Mike had a big grin on his face when he responded to Woody that he had waited 20 years to record that bass sound! It turns out Felix was Mike’s cousin and Mike had been in the control room when Mountain recorded their well known hit, “Mississippi Queen”! After hearing that, Woody said they had no problems whatsoever—the vibe was right and the Mule was ready to get out of the stall! Mike also produced a CCR cover tune by Gov’t Mule, “I Put a Spell on You,” for a possible Creedence Clearwater Revival tribute CD—and in related news, Warren finally put down tracks of his incredible remake of Otis Redding’s “I’ve been Loving You Too Long” for a Memphis Horns CD.

Barbiero selected the Bearsville Studio in upstate New York as the location to capture the Mule sound. It was a location he was familiar with, having participated on about 15 albums produced there. The area is in the scenic Catskills Mountains near Woodstock and the place is owned and staffed by some very special people. Sally Grossman, the owner, set the stage when she took everyone out to eat on the night of their arrival, a gracious act that I’m sure was most appreciated by the more serious eaters in the group! Todd Vos was also of tremendous help during the recording sessions. He was a guitar wiz who was able to track down the source of any buzz or fix any problem that occurred. Being comfortable, in the right place, and with the right people was extremely important, as Gov’t Mule came prepared to work. Beginning February 27, 1995, they spent four days in New York City in pre-production. Then their schedule called for going up to Bearsville to record 15 songs in 8 days. After that it was back to New York City to River Sounds studio for any over-dubbing needed.

All in all, the band ended up accomplishing what they set out to do. First and foremost they wanted to capture, as much as possible, the spirit of their live performances on tape. Second, they didn’t want to homogenize the music by overproducing it. They wanted to capture the emotion of the playing—not the perfection of it. They also were looking for a full, big sound a la Cream and Mountain. And finally, they wanted to capture the freshness of their improvisational approach. Mike Barbiero summed it up when he said, “Gov’t Mule understands what a lot of younger kids don’t, and that is the key to really playing good is listening. A lot of kids go out there and just blow and they wonder why, when records are mixed, many of the dynamics have to be mixed into their records. Because there is not a lot of listening going on! But Warren excels at listening and knowing when to step out and when to lay back and has a wonderful sense of dynamics as does the rest of the band.”

When I talked with Woody about the CD, he told me, “The bass sounds that we got on this record . . . they were exactly as I heard them in my head. They were exactly as we play them live, and Mike managed to capture it in the studio and kudos to him for doing it, because we’re not an easy band to record. The sound that I was looking for is definitely a retro sound and I haven’t heard it used in twenty-odd years. I haven’t heard it since some of the heavier type bands used that thicker base tone. Pickin’ Pappalardi’s bass tone and saying that to him, it’s amazing. Mike got me right where I wanted to be. Warren and I both played pretty much strictly Gibson guitars, with the exception of a couple of tracks and some that had overdubs and that kind of thing. It was Gibson guitars and Gibson basses. I used older Gibson basses, like those used by some of the power trios of the ’70s. It managed to get that same thick tone. I could never use any of the basses that I used on this record with the Allman Brothers Band, it would never work. The sound wouldn’t work, but it’s perfect for this. It’s murky, it’s dark, it’s brown and muddy all the way down to the basement!”

Warren’s comments spoke of their focus and fit between players: “The record we made, we’re extremely proud of, and we did it in three weeks, from start to finish. I mean, that’s from doing the basic tracks, any overdubs that were done, and mixing. All in a three-week period, which is very rare in this day and age. The approach is very similar to how the Brothers did Where It All Begins. We played everything live. All the solos were live and even on three or four of the songs the vocal performances were live as well. Everything worked. The three piece thing, you know, it has to be approached a certain way. I was talking to Dickey about it and he said, ‘Yeah, I remember back when I use to do a three piece, it’s weird, you gotta have the two right guys.’ Being the guitar player and singer, you’ve got to have the right bass player and drummer and, of course Woody and Matt are definitely the two right guys. We were jokin’ about it, laughing, and Dickey says, ‘it has to be like a controlled train wreck!’ That’s the truth, if you get two guys in there that are used to playing in a bigger band and when they narrow it down to a three-piece and play the same way, it just does not have character. There is no place to hide in a three piece band and everything is right there in your face and whatever you’re going to play, you better mean it. That’s the way Woody and Matt are, they’re just relentless.”

In late June Gov’t Mule’s self-titled CD is scheduled to be released. It is a terrific representation of what this band has to offer. I’m sure many of the fans are going to wonder what in the world Gov’t Mule (always abbreviated, no period) means. Other than to mention that Jaimoe helped with naming the group, the musicians remain quite ambiguous about the origin and meaning. Is it from 40 acres and a mule? Is it like the government mule sold by the Union after the war? Is it possible it’s named after Francis the talking mule? Does it refer to a person who carries contraband? Is it slang? Does it mean slave to the government? I don’t know, but somehow it seems to fit. I think the band enjoys the fact that all their fans kind of get their own impression.

The CD starts off with “Grinnin’ In Your Face,” an old Son House song that Warren sings a cappella. For those fans who really dig Warren’s vocals, its a great chance to listen to the resonance and timbre of his voice. The end of the song segues straight into the count-off for “Mother Earth,” which is another 1930s blues tune that was originally a shuffle about twice as fast as the Mule’s eight minute, thirteen second rendition. Warren told me, “We thought it was a ballsy move to open the album with an a cappella blues tune that goes into a slow blues. Most people today want to open their records with a four minute up-tempo song, and we opened with an eight minute jam!” The idea was to have no pretensions—this is who Gov’t Mule is. With a band like this there is no sense wasting any time getting right down to it. There is nothing timid about the band or the beginnings to “Mother Earth”—Woody’s bass comes crashing in like an anchor busting through a ship’s floor, going down into the bowels of Dante’s Inferno. You’ll either like it or you won’t, but if the Mule kicks you off in the first ten minutes (wimp), you need to get back up and hang on for the rest of the ride—there is a substantial amount of variation and imagination created by this trio on this CD.

The next song is “Rockin’ Horse,” which Warren, Woody, Gregg Allman, and Jack Pearson wrote out at Gregg’s place on the West Coast. Great lyrics come out in the song: “up, down, anywhere but in the middle/off the wagon, under the wheel again/all or nothin’—never could do just a little/never could leave it alone.” Considering that this group of writers also came up with the lyrically rich, “Sailin’ ’Cross the Devil’s Sea,” I’d love to see some more things written or performed from past or future sessions! There is even a non-subtle reference to an Allman Brothers song with the lyric, “Good clean fun/just my imagination/down and dirty that’s the way the game is played.” The song jumps and does a great job of capturing the guitars rockin back and forth! “It’s complete, straight ahead bebop type jazz at the beginning and then it gets on out there. It’s a long jam tune. It’s our one for the record, if you will.”

The fourth song is “Monkey Hill,” which has a stark perspective provided by several different characters. The song begins with that kind of psychedelic vocal heard long ago in the early seventies, and the music does a good job of jarring the listener along. I don’t know what corner Warren has been hanging out on in New York, but he’s got the perspective down pat in this one. Lost souls and sad stories are amply described with minimal phrasing, a song filled with characters dirtied by life. It is another song where the Mule just cooks instrumentally, with Warrens guitar competing with the sparse lyrics for the descrip- tion of the screaming souls.

The next song, “Temporary Saint,” is in my opinion the sleeper of the CD. The moody, driving, hesitant pacing is beautifully woven together with incredible lyrics that just get better with each listening. The weary desperation described in the lyrics, “cleaning up one more time sure is getting old/why don’t you bury me like the dirt that’s in my soul,” is followed earlier and later in the song by the words, “and lucky you/you get to be my saint/temporary saint.” Incredible lyrics with incredible music, one of my favorites on the CD. By the way, Woody plays a Hofner bass on this song, instead of the Gibson as the band was going for a Beatles-ish kind of groove.

Following “Temporary Saint” is “Trane,” which is a collectively written instrumental homage to John Coltrane. It is really a free-form jam that changes every night that Gov’t Mule plays it live. There are sections of the song that are the same or almost the same, but it’s basically a chance for the Mule to stretch out. At certain points in the song I am reminded of “Mountain Jam”—it just takes me away! “Trane” really developed out of a number of different jams that took place at the end of several different songs like “Mr. Big,” for example. It certainly shows off the flexibility of Gov’t Mule and proves that the band is not locked into any kind of 12-bar blues or conventional song-writing formula. It also shows that this band can grab a theme without a lot of parameters and turn it into magic. “We were very happy with it once it came out,” Woody said. “And it was our gift to ourselves to be able to play that way on record. It certainly was out of character for a rock and roll record to contain something like that and it was like we treated ourselves, because we had worked so hard on the song. It’s complete, straight ahead bebop type jazz at the beginning and then it gets on out there. It’s a long jam tune. It’s our one for the record, if you will.”

After listening to “Temporary Saint” and “Trane” you can appreciate Warren’s comments about Matt Abts: “From a drum perspective he likes Tony Williams (drummer for Miles Davis, John McLaughlin) and obviously Ginger Baker and Mitch Mitchell, people like that. He also has this kind of primal Ringo Starr thing. Ringo Starr was never a virtuoso drummer, but on some of the later Beatles records there was just something in the way that he and McCartney, who by the way was a tremendous influence on Woody, played together. So you have influences as diverse and technically complex as Tony Williams and then you’ve got influences that are as primal as Ringo Starr.”

The seventh song of the CD, “Mule” is definitely one of the highlights. The lyric writers were both hanging back out on that same corner when they wrote this one. The way Warren and Woody captured such insight with their words is incredible. John Popper of Blues Traveler contributes immensely with wonderful rapid-paced harmonica on some sections and pulsing, driving harp on others. The instrumental jam is something to behold and the amazing thing is they got this one on the first take! Just wait until you hear that ZZ Top bass line poppin’ down that back beat with Warren’s slide racing ahead and behind, teased by the mouth harp and propelled by the drums! They are the Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon of rock (Woody suggested instead of Grumpy Old Men they were Burned Out Young Men!) and they have the same cynical, unrepentant panache that Frank Zappa had.

With the introduction of a stunning acoustic number, “Dolphineus,” the whole album is elevated to another level in the breadth of one song. After hearing the previous seven selections you might think it would be impossible to have many surprises left—don’t worry, it was just the Mule setting you up! Out of left field, along comes a duet just as strong as any Plant/Page number. In fact, this song was written prior to any unplugged Zep. Woody plays, strums, and picks rhythm on a bass dulcimer and Warren follows with a mystical, Eastern type of acoustic lead. Matt’s percussion shows taste and timing as they add to the expansiveness of a beautiful song that segues into the intro of “Painted Silver Light.” Just the title of this next song alone is beautiful . . . it made me think of moonlight streaming through a winter window pane. When I asked Mike Barbiero what it made him think of, he described a Rembrandt painting dominated by the silver oil-painted brush strokes from another century. Warren did mention that it was written about a dream, a recurring dream. In his elusive way he said, “I know what it means to me, and people will know what it means to them, if anything. But I can’t really explain it. There are parts of it that I’m still trying to figure out myself.” I thought Mike had a good phrase for the song when he told me that “saying someone has beautiful eyes is one thing, but telling them how beautiful they look in the painted silver light elevates them to a portrait.”

As beautifully mysterious as “Painted Silver Light” is, there can be no mistaking the “whup-ass attitude” displayed towards “Mr. Big.” Plain, blunt, and in your face, this aggressively played song is a lot of fun. Tons of testosterone and macho attitude abound in the music and the words. Many of the previous songs have some interesting ambiguity. This one can only be taken one way, so sit back and enjoy the ride.

One of the things I enjoy about Warren and Woody is their incredible sense of wit and humor. They are the Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon of rock (Woody suggested instead of Grumpy Old Men they were Burned Out Young Men!) and they have the same cynical, unrepentant panache that Frank Zappa had. So when I heard them dedicate “Left Coast Groovies” to Frank at their first concert I had to ask them about the song. Warren explains: “The way that song came about is that Woody came to me at Telstar when we were doing the demos and said we need to write a song called “Left Coast Groovies” and write it for Frank Zappa. So we decided to do that. We had about a week where we were going to be spending a lot of time together, so he and I started working on it. He wrote some lyrical ideas down for some verse stuff, and I had some music that I had already written that I thought might work well for it, a couple of sections in particular. Then there is one section in the middle, which is like a bridge, that I already had the lyrics and music written to and we were just messin’ around with it. So he had part of it written and I had part of it written and we finished it together, me, him and Matt. So, we’ve dedicated it to Frank Zappa on the record.” Woody concurred with Warren’s comments and added, “We wanted to dedicate the song to Frank Zappa because it was extremely cynical and I think pretty much unrepentant. So we thought well, Frank’s passed on and we were, of course, huge fans of his. He was a fan of the Allman Brothers. They played ‘Whippin’ Post’ live, which made me like him all the more. So we wanted to pay homage to him because he had a big influence on our unrepentant comedy and our playing as well.” By the way, Hook Herrera plays a mean harp on this one!

In typical Mule style these guys have saved the best song for last with “World of Difference.” This song is as graceful and forceful as a slow moving freight train leaving the station. It starts out with just the bass and the drums creating a melodic beat. The cymbals play an important role in providing a full sound, and when Warren joins in, his lead guitar is a haunting requiem. Soon he begins to sing . . . he preaches, as only he can, delivering descriptive pearls. The instrumental portions of the song are absolutely mesmerizing. I don’t know how else to describe it except to say that when these guys recorded this song they were in such a groove that they hit “Left Coast Groovies” and “World of Difference” back-to-back, live in the studio. That’s over 17 minutes of music live and they nailed it! Just like they nailed the whole CD.

What a pleasure it has been to talk with all of the people involved in this Gov’t Mule story. Special thanks to Doc Fields, Mike Barbiero, Kirk and Kirsten West, E. J., and of course Warren, Woody, and Matt for all of their time. Many of their opinions are expressed here and not necessarily in quotations. In closing, the next time one of your friends wants to hear some good music, you just ask them—“How ’bout now?!” and slap on that Gov’t Mule CD!

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