Published on April 23rd, 2013 | by Jared Booth0
Gov’t Mule Plays a Never-Ending Medley of Covers and Originals
North Charleston Performing Arts Center, April 21
After four days of nonstop performances at Wanee Music Festival in Florida, one of the hardest-working men in rock n’ roll, Warren Haynes, and his badass band, Gov’t Mule, kicked off their summer tour at the North Charleston Performing Arts Center on Sunday night.
Mere mortals might have been exhausted from weekend or perhaps working out the kinks on the first night of their official tour. But not these old pros. Haynes seemed energized, the band was as tight as any could be, and they delivered two expertly precise, yet unpredictable sets.
Haynes started it off with a slide solo to lull the crowd before the band joined in and bombarded the place with noise: fat, murky, perfect noise. The rhythm section of drummer Matt Abts and bassist Jorgen Carlsson was the canvas for Haynes’s brush. Without their constant teamwork, those famous guitar licks would have felt somehow legless. Keyboardist Danny Louis also contributed several excellent solos and a general quirkiness that added much to the overall sound – and never took away.
The rollicking first set began with “Hammer and Nails,” and the plumpness of the bass settled in like a fog that never lifted. The overall tone felt rich, especially when Haynes’s bluesy soloing took off from it in the jet airplane he calls a guitar. Throughout the night, his landings were almost as impressive. Haynes’ subtle, effortless transitions from face-melting solos to calm, tasteful moments of respite were works of mastery.
Haynes belted out the iconic “Mule,” asking determinedly, “Where’s my mule?/Where’s my 40 acres?/Where’s my dream?” While he is regularly hailed for his guitar work, Haynes’s alternately gruff, soft, and soulful voice deserves praise as well. His inflections always seem to mean something, and their perfect-for-the-moment-ness adds immeasurably to the songs, giving everything context. When he took “Mule” straight into the classic “Who Do You Love?,” his physical resemblance to Ronnie Hawkins was almost as striking as his vocal resemblance.
The night was full of such medleys. In fact, it felt like one long medley — a quality adored by their more jam-centric fans. After “Who Do You Love?,” Haynes went straight into the famous guitar lick from Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” before bringing it back to “Mule” with a screaming solo. Even when the band didn’t fully go into a new song, Haynes snaked little riffs all night, giving the audience thrills with quick, familiar bursts of “Get Up Stand Up,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” and Zeppelin’s “Black Dog.”
When you get down to it, what is live music but a series of connected moments: a soundbite of recognition for the crowd here and a chuckle and grin between band members there.
After a few more originals, Haynes dipped back in the rock well and pulled out Creedence’s “Long as I Can See the Light,” whipping up that lilting John Fogerty whine with ease. He followed it with a gorgeous rendition of Clapton’s “Presence of the Lord” before calling out, “South Carolina, you feel like singing a little bit? I’m from North Carolina and in North Carolina they know how to sing, and I’m assuming y’all know how to sing. If you don’t know the words, just look to your left or right.” The band then broke into “Lay Your Burden Down,” which became “Smokestack Lightning,” and yes, everyone on both sides of me sang along.
After a set break, Haynes emerged with a fresh guitar from the veritable garage of them that are kept on stage right, as well as a fresh shirt, because good music is sweaty. He started with yet another cover, the Bill Withers soul classic “Hope She’ll Be Happier,” followed by The Band’s “Shape I’m In.”
Much of the second set featured a guest horn section, with South Carolina trumpeter Craig Sorrells and saxophonist Rob Ingraham, from the night’s opening band, the Revivalists. They added a buoyant feel, and played a big part in the absolute highlight of the show, “Slackjaw Jezebel,” an original with a dynamism and funkiness that recalls Talking Heads, but with a southern twist. In a great show, there’s always one song where you look around as the last notes fade and everyone just has that glazed-out, bowled-over look on their faces. This was the one.
But the show was far from over. The band ran through a seemingly endless barrage of songs, including the oldie-but-goody “The Letter” by the Box Tops, Hendrix’s “Hey Joe,” a call-and-response version of “Ain’t No Sunshine When She’s Gone,” and an original called “Blind Man in the Dark.” They returned for an encore with Haynes asking, “South Carolina, can you get funky with us one more time?” The music finally came to a close with a grooved-out, horn-centric version of Little Feat’s “Spanish Moon,” an appropriately eclectic and giddy end to a raucous night.
Out of the night’s many great moments, there was one split-second that I could not stop thinking about as I left the theater. During one of his mammoth solos, after pulling off a quick little guitar run, Haynes just beamed at Abts, his longtime drummer, with a cheeky look that said, “Man I love how it feels when I do that.” I couldn’t get over the fact that a tiny guitar lick, one that he has played thousands of times, could still tickle him pink. After all these years, the 53-year-old bubbled over with joy because of a few flicks of his wrist. How beautiful is that? I can’t imagine a better definition of success than finding a source of constant, endless joy and getting paid to spread it around to a vastly appreciative public for decades. If you have to wake up every morning anyway, that’s a hell of a way to do it.
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