Since the news came out that Gov't Mule—the power trio that began as a part-time side project for then-Allman Brothers Band guitarist/singer Warren Haynes and bassist Allen Woody but which, along with drummer Matt Abts, was so well-received that the southern-roots jam band ultimately took on an unexpected life of its own—was finally releasing Sco-Mule, a collaboration with broad-minded jazz guitarist John Scofield, there's been plenty of speculation and anticipation. Now that the live recording—first held up and then shelved after the harrowing tragedy of Woody's still-unexplained death six months after the group's third studio album, Life Before Insanity, was released in February, 2000—is finally here as part of Mule's ambitious release and gig schedule to celebrate two decades together, there are only two words that truly apply:
There are so many surprises on this two-disc (three if you're one of the people who pre-ordered the release directly from the group), two and a half-hour all-instrumental extravaganza that it's hard to know where to begin.
First, the more-or-less easy part: Scofield had, by this time, already begun building a new fan base in the jam band community with A Go Go (Verve, 1998), the first of what has since become a number of ongoing collaborations with germinal jazz jam band Medeski, Martin & Wood. Pairing with Mule was a perfect fit; Scofield's blues and soul-drenched version of jazz guitar had separated him from the pack almost from the beginning of his career, when he released the still seminal Live (Enja, 1977), an incendiary date with pianist Richie Beirach, bassist George Mraz and drummer Joe LaBarbera.
Still, who knew that the guitarist who has in the ensuing years, with his Überjam Band and others, expanded his purview even further, could rock out as he does here...and use his ever-increasing array of stomp pedals to such great effect—in particular on this album's scorching title track, where he scratches out a solo that's as close to a turntablist as any guitarist has ever come, while adding unearthly electronic swoops and swirls—as Abts matches him fiery note for fiery note—before digging even further in for an incendiary climax?
Who knew that Abts (who, taken collectively with his Mule buddies, looks more biker than musician, with shoulder-length hair and more tats per square inch than the Illustrated Man) could swing his ass off as he does on two 18-minute versions of "Kind of Bird" that begin in unexpectedly free territory—the song originally written by Haynes with Allman Brothers co-founder Dickey Betts for that group's Shades of Two Worlds (Epic, 1991)—before settling into a positively nuclear rock groove that, driven equally hard by Woody's relentlessly driving eighth-note lines, bolsters yet another stratospheric Scofield solo?
Who knew that Aquarium Rescue Unit keyboardist Dr. Dan Matrazzo had the chops to cut a Latinesque soul-jazz reading of Wayne Shorter's "Tom Thumb"—first heard by Scofield as a bonus track to the guitarist's 1996 Blue Note-era compilation The Best of John Scofield—navigating its more complex chordal constructs with ease during his electric piano solo, or waxing Jan Hammer-like with searing synth work on both versions of A Go Go's "Hottentot" that are included on Sco-Mule?