By Gene Knapp
A mule is, by definition, an animal bred to work, and that is exactly what Gov’t Mule does. With their 20th anniversary upon them, the group is now in the middle of releasing four multi-disc sets of live performances from their archives. And, according to frontman Warren Haynes, these four are just the beginning.
The first live set, Stoned Side of the Mule, was made available on vinyl only on Record Store Day Black Friday. As the title suggests, the set consists of covers of Rolling Stones songs, taken from a 2009 show. The band moves from the driving “Monkey Man” to the heartbreak of “Angie,” where Haynes’ vocals cry out for a lost love.
The second in the series, released December 15, is Dark Side of the Mule. Is there any question which artist they’re covering here? The 90 minutes of music here includes covers of hits like “Money” and “Comfortably Numb,” in a beautifully authentic version, but also lesser-known songs like “Pigs on the Wing, Pt. 2.” As Haynes pointed out, “I don’t think it would be right to stick to only the most recognizable songs.” Recorded on Halloween, 2008, in Boston, this lengthy set includes no duplicates from their similar show in Burlington, VT the night before—remember, this band works. They are dedicated to their music and their fans. Haynes explained, “That was [bassist] Jorgen Carlsson’s second show with Gov’t Mule. Fortunately, he was a huge Pink Floyd fan and was probably more versed in that music than any of us. That was the first night Jorgen had played any of those songs.” Yes, dedication and cooperation.
Following the release of Dark Side of the Mule, the band will again change direction with Dub Side of the Mule (due out in March), featuring another three hours of Gov’t Mule at their best. Here, special guest Toots Hibbert, of Toots and the Maytals, joins in for this reggae set, featuring a kickin’ version of Gov’t Mule’s own “Soulshine,” as well as soul classics like “I’ve Got Dreams to Remember.”
Rounding out the first four archival live releases—and the only one of the four that doesn’t see the band donning a musical costume, as it were—is the long-awaited Sco-Mule (due out January 27), recorded in September, 1999 with jazz guitarist John Scofield. Not only is this a chance to once again hear the group’s original bass player, the late Allen Woody, but also to hear long instrumental jams that sparkle with excitement. As we all know, and as Haynes readily pointed out, “Seventeen minutes doesn’t scare us.”
See below for an exclusive preview of Gov’t Mule and John Scofield playing “Freeway Jam,” to be included on Sco-Mule (due out January 27; pre-order here)
Whether triumphantly taking on the Stones, the magnanimous power of Pink Floyd, a fun-filled set of reggae, or the jazz-inspired sounds of John Scofield, it’s obvious that Gov’t Mule simply loves music—all music. They are musicians, but first, they are fans. So how do they choose which music to explore onstage. “In all cases, we’re picking songs we haven’t done before,” Haynes said. “The first time we ever play them is ‘the big moment.’”
Throughout all this music, the word that always shines through with Haynes is “passion.” There’s passion for the music, but there’s another sort of passion too. Each holiday season, for the past 26 years, Haynes, a native of Asheville, NC, has organized and performed an all-star benefit show, Christmas Jam, currently supporting the local Habitat for Humanity—although funds are sometimes diverted in emergency cases: “After Katrina, a portion was earmarked for Musicians’ Village in New Orleans,” Haynes said. Over the years, Gov’t Mule has played with dozens like-minded artists and raised huge sums of money. This year, on December 13, the band jammed with artists including Jason Isbell, Vince Gill, Hard Working Americans, Jackie Greene, Bill Kreutzmann, the Revivalists and more.
In fact, throughout their career, harking back to Haynes’ days with the Allman Brothers, Gov’t Mule has become the quintessential jam band. From the Bee Gees and the Beatles to New Orleans jazz and reggae to the Rolling Stones and Black Sabbath, it’s the music and the passion that drives them. Egos never get in the way of their love for playing and jamming with countless artists over their amazing 20-year career.
Haynes himself said it best: “A good song can be interpreted in so many different ways. The first time we played ‘War Pigs,’ America was at war, it was New Year’s Eve, and nobody expected Gov’t Mule to play Black Sabbath, so we did.” It’s that attitude that keeps Gov’t Mule fresh and refreshing, vital and necessary. It’s that same attitude that keeps them recording, performing and giving back to their audience and to the communtiy every chance they get—working like mules. As the song says, “Let your soul shine/Oh, it’s better than sunshine/Better than moonshine/Damn sure better than rain!”