Gov’t Mule was an idea before it was a band and a side project before it was a full-time affair.
Now, 22 years after its debut, the Mule is an essential, iconic American band, a fact reiterated from the very first note of the group’s new album, Revolution Come… Revolution Go. The album is as diverse and wide-ranging as anything Warren Haynes has recorded in his prolific career, making a strong statement that he is one of his generation’s best and most important guitarists.
“Warren is playing in rarified air,” says Don Was, who produced two tracks on Revolution Come…Revolution Go. “There are very few people in his class.”
After touring for several months with Haynes as part of the Last Waltz 40 celebration of The Band, Was had a good handle on Haynes’ playing ability. Entering the studio together for the first time helped him more fully appreciate Haynes’ talents as a leader, organizer and craftsman—and of Gov’t Mule’s greatness as a band.
“They have the kind of telepathic communication and understanding of one another’s ideas and instincts that mark all great bands,” says Was, who has worked with the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, the Black Crowes, Van Morrison and many other iconic artists. “The musical conversations happening in Gov’t Mule are vivid and highly cooperative and really intense. It’s the kind of thing you can’t just rehearse your way into. It’s chemistry and it comes from great players who really listen—and from years of playing gigs together.”
Haynes and bassist Allen Woody hatched the idea for Gov’t Mule in the early Nineties on late night bus rides in the years after the pair had helped resurrect the Allman Brothers Band and return them to glory. Their vision was an experimental, improvisatory, rock trio in the mold of Cream, Led Zeppelin and Mountain, a heavy but free-range musical form they felt had vanished. They teamed up with drummer Matt Abts and began fulfilling the vision with a 1994 jam at the Palomino Club in Los Angeles.
In October 1995, Gov’t Mule released their self-titled debut and began touring hard around Allman Brothers runs. Their shows were high volume, high intensity musical conversations that could roam from acoustic Delta blues to covers of Black Sabbath, with original tunes that reflected this breadth. In March ’97, as they finished work on their excellent, ambitious second album Dose, Haynes and Woody left the Brothers to focus on the Mule.
When Woody died in August 2000, Haynes and Abts didn’t know if they could or should continue with the Mule. After recording two albums with guest bassists ranging from Phish’s Mike Gordon and the Grateful Dead’s Phil Lesh to Cream’s Jack Bruce and Deep Purple’s Roger Glover, the Mule toured with a rotating cast of bassists. They decided they would no longer be a trio, adding keyboardist Danny Louis and bassist Andy Hess. Jorgen Carlsson replaced Hess in 2009 and has helped the band return to its aggressive roots even while continuously expanding its scope.
While all that was going on, Haynes also returned to the Allman Brothers band in 2000 and spent years juggling gigs and tours between them, Mule, the Dead, Phil Lesh and Friends and others. Haynes recorded and released a country and folk-tinged solo album Ashes and Dust; his previous solo effort, 2011’s Man in Motion, was an r&b based album.
The Allman Brothers played their final show in October 2014, and with Revolution Come…Revolution Go, Haynes seems to have pushed all his chips onto the Gov’t Mule table. The album, recorded mostly at Willie Nelson’s Arlyn Studios in Austin, includes songs that would have been at home on Ashes and Dust and Man in Motion, as well as a couple that could have been on an Allman Brothers album and several classic Mule rockers.
“You never know where an album is going to head until you get into it,” says Haynes. “I just found myself writing in a lot of different directions and all of them seemed to work together especially when interpreted by the band and our collective personality. You have to work up the songs and see which ones feel like they want to go together because the album concept is still very important to me and I don’t think I’ll ever change my view on that no matter how popular single tracks become. I’ll keep assuming or hoping that most people will agree with that approach.”
“Stone Cold Rage,” the first song on the album, sets a tone, both musically—with a hard edge and some cool alternate sections—and lyrically, where you get very topical. You put your finger on what was happening in the country last fall as clearly as anyone has: “There’s a stone cold rage in the hinterlands.”