We live in a country where some fresh new political hell seems to reveal itself every day, where the population seems more divided than ever, and where our leaders seem determined to argue, posture, and insult each other instead of working on actual issues. And looking over this bleak social landscape in 2017, Warren Haynes, singer, guitarist and bandleader for the Southern-jam-blues rockers Gov't Mule can only smile wearily, shake his head, and sing, in that gruff howl of a voice, "Revolution Come... Revolution Go."
That's the title track of the new album by the Mule, a four-piece juggernaut consisting of Haynes, drummer Matt Abts, keyboard player Danny Louis, and bassist Jorgen Carlsson. It's the 11th studio album of the band's career, their first in four years, and the first since the breakup of Haynes' day job, the legendary Allman Brothers Band, in 2014.
The album is a sprawling, muscular tour through everything the Mule does well, from bottom heavy Southern rock to blistering blues to extended instrumental improvisation, all anchored by a near-telepathic sense of interplay and topped off by the Grammy-winning Haynes' bee-stung guitar wail. It's also as political an album as they've ever made, from the bitter resignation of the title track to the self-explanatory anger of "Stone Cold Rage" to the more hopeful, we're-all-in-this-together anthem "Pressure Under Fire."
"If you look at the cover of the album (a couple of toy horses rotating around a flag with a megaphone-clutching blowhard in each saddle), it's kind of a tongue in cheek look at where we are these days politically," Haynes says. "Nothing gets done. One group comes in and makes changes, then the next group comes in and changes everything back, and we're back to where we were. And from the perspective of the people, it just seems like it's totally ineffective."
Perspective is an important word, because at no point on these songs does Haynes come down on either side of the political fence. He doesn't blame the left or the right for the mess we're in; he's just trying to figure out why the mess exists in the first place.
"I like to view things from an observer's standpoint, lyrically," he says. "And my perspective is that we're just kind stuck in the mud."
It's the political tunes that might grab more ink (as we've fallen prey to above), but that's not all the Mule has going on this time around. There's the yearning, organ-drenched soul of "The Man I Want to Be," the percussion-spiked, warmly hypnotic "Traveling Tune," and a towering, soul-shaking seven-plus minute version of the Blind Willie Johnson classic "Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground" that serves as Revolution Come's knockout punch. Over a menacing slow groove and skin-shearing slide-guitar, Mule creates one of the darkest, most ominous tracks they've ever recorded, with a fresh set of lyrics written by Haynes.
"We came up with the idea of doing our own take on the song probably a year or so before we recorded it," Haynes says, "but I didn't actually add lyrics to it until we were in the studio. We'd been messing around with the idea, but we never really dove into it fully. I wasn't sure if I was going to write lyrics [the original version mostly features Johnson's humming or chanting], but everybody seemed to think it needed lyrics so I added them on at the last minute."
The track was a personal one for Haynes because the original version changed his life the first time he heard it. "I think a lot of blues enthusiasts, including myself, consider it one of the greatest recordings in the history of blues music," he says. "It's just this gripping, chilling performance, and people who have heard it know that it's just a beautiful and haunting performance, and it grabbed so many people. The first time I heard it, it leapt out at me. It was decades ago, but I still remember that moment. It's just one of those rare pieces of history that stays with you."
And musical history is a great way to describe the music of the Allman Bros., who Haynes joined when the band reunited in 1990 for the Seven Turns album. And by any standard, that history has taken some serious blows this year, with the shocking suicide of original drummer Butch Trucks being followed by the death of singer Gregg Allman just four months later. Those losses still weigh heavily on Haynes, as one might expect.
"I've been an Allman Bros. fan since I was nine years old, and my brother played the first record for me," Haynes says. "I loved them before I even picked up a guitar. They were always one of my favorite bands, and I always said that if I could join any band I grew up listening to, they'd be at the top of the list. Losing Butch and Gregg has been devastating for all of us, but it's even more so for the musical community in general. When I think of the Allman Bros, I think of the original band and the music they made, even though they weren't together that long. That's timeless music that will be around forever, and I'm just proud of having been a part of keeping it alive."
Revolution Come. Revolution Go
Rock & roll has always been a reflection of the times, and the new Mule is no exception.