This Saturday, Oct. 19, at The Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, NY, guitarist Warren Haynes, bassist George Porter Jr., drummer Joe Russo and keyboardist John Medeski will revive their One Night Only collaboration (with help from saxophonist Karl Denson) for another evening of music benefitting Debra of America, an organization that helps fight and raise awareness of Epidermolysis Bullosa, a rare genetic condition that causes children to be born with extremely fragile skin.
Haynes was also recently honored by the Little Kids Rock organization during a ceremony in which the Gov’t Mule frontman was introduced by and shared the stage with Steve Miller for a performance of “Statesboro Blues.” Here, Haynes discusses his involvement with the two organizations and his ongoing appreciation for each of his One Night Only collaborators, plus what’s next in terms of writing music for both Mule and his own solo work, and why The Cap and the Beacon Theatre—where Mule will once again celebrate New Year’s Eve this winter—are two of his favorite venues to play.
Let’s start out with the Little Kids Rock benefit last night. It looks like it was a lot of fun for a good cause, and you and Steve Miller got to team up onstage.
Yeah, it was cool all around. Little Kids Rock started out very grassroots and grew into this great organization. They’re approaching their goal of a million students, as far as providing music education, which is amazing. I was really honored to be connected to the whole thing. It was a really fun night—the house band was great, and playing with Steve was fun. I was honored to have him present me the award. It was a beautiful night.
What’s your history with Steve?
We’ve known each other a long time. We did some touring together in the ‘90s and we’ve played together quite a few times. He brought the Steve Miller Band to Christmas Jam [Haynes’ annual musical gathering in Asheville, NC] a few years back. We played together for this Les Paul event with a bunch of guitar players [an NYC celebration for Paul’s100th birthday in 2015]; it was really fun. So yeah, we’ve done quite a few things together.
In relation to Little Kids Rock, can you talk about the importance of youth music education and your own experience? It seems that arts programs like music are the first things to be let go when cutting budgets.
Obviously, I’m someone who believes that offering music education programs to kids is extremely important. For the last several decades, seeing funding for creative arts in general, but music specifically, be taken away is very frustrating, because it’s so important for kids to have a pathway at an early age. It’s hard for me to believe that we can’t as a country, as a government, provide that—that we leave it up to individuals and broader organizations to make sure it gets taken care of. But, that’s where we are. It’s very unfortunate. I was lucky growing up—my dad bought me an electric guitar and an electric amp when I was 12 years old. And every year, he would trade it in for something a little bit better. A lot of kids don’t have that as an option. If there aren’t programs available to provide instruments, then a lot of kids just don’t have that option of pursuing something that might end up changing their lives.
Moving to a different cause you’re involved with, you have the second One Night Only benefit concert for Debra of America coming up at The Capitol Theatre, with a really cool group of musicians. I’m curious about your connection with the Debra organization and fighting EB [Epidermolysis Bullosa], which I wasn’t aware of before doing some research. It obviously needs some light shined on it for research.
Absolutely. I was unaware of it until a little over a year ago [before the first One Night Only benefit]. As you mentioned, it’s a very important cause. Whenever there’s a opportunity to get musicians together and play to raise money and shine a light on things, it just makes total sense. It’s a way of utilizing music to make things better. And for us, it’s an opportunity to play some music with wonderful musicians that don’t get to play together often enough. If we can do that, and also help the cause, it’s kind of a win-win.
How were you approached to be a part of this before last year’s show?
I didn’t know much about it prior to them reaching out to us about doing a show. But the more I learned about it, the more I thought, “This has to happen.”
Absolutely. You mentioned that this group of musicians doesn’t really get to play together, but you obviously have experience with them, at least individually, so let’s get into each of them, starting with George Porter Jr.
Well, Porter and I go way, way back. He was one of the people that helped Gov’t Mule stay alive after Allen Woody passed away [in 2000]. We’ve played together tons of times. He’s one of my favorite musicians on the planet. I think he just has such unique voice and spirit on his instrument. He’s one of the people that took bass guitar in a new direction. If you say, “Play like George Porter,” they know what that means. That in itself is the ultimate compliment.
Moving on to Joe Russo.
Russo is someone I’ve known a long time as well. Not quite as long as Porter, I guess, but I love Joe’s sense of experimentation and improv. He’s one of those drummers who’s not afraid to steer the music in a direction other than where it was headed in that moment. I love that. That’s one of the things that we have in common, that appreciation for the unexpected and shaking things up. Joe’s elasticity as a drummer is really beautiful, and it starts with the intent: what you want music to be, what it means to you and what it can be. When you look at those sorts of things through a different lens, music can be played with no pressure. It’s a language, a way of communicating. With all these guys, the communication level is really high.
That brings us to John Medeski, who also is certainly not afraid to go different directions with music.
Medeski is another one of my favorites. We’ve done quite a few things together in the last few years—for decades now, but in the last few years we’ve started to do more projects together. I just love his free spirit, his take on music and also his versatility. He’s known for painting outside the lines, which is great, but he’s one of those people who’s educated in so many different types of music and can play anything. Fortunately, we get to experience what he chooses and how he interprets music, which is fantastic.
Karl Denson is also a great addition to the group this year.
Karl is a fantastic musician and bandleader. He’s really got an interesting way of approaching ensemble music. As a soloist, he’s fantastic as well, obviously. We did a couple of weeks together a few years ago, where Karl just got on the bus with Gov’t Mule, and we would play part of the night with him. He really opened our minds up, even in a lot of our original material, to new directions we could take some of the songs. Specifically, there were certain sections of songs where he’d say, “What if we did this and turned this into an improv solo across these changes, then we’ll move it over to here.” Just all these things that we had never thought about. A lot of them stuck—a lot of them we still do that way, even in a four-piece setting.