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The Other Jam Music: Gov’t Mule at Artscape, July 16

July 20, 2010

What makes Gov’t Mule the most satisfying jam band of this era? Unlike most of its genremates, this quartet doesn’t play music; it plays songs. Attend a concert by Phish, Widespread Panic, the Yonder String Band, or the Funky Meters, and you’ll hear hours of skillfully played, feel-good, undifferentiated music unfurling like wallpaper. If you attended the Gov’t Mule show at Artscape on Saturday, however, you heard distinct songs, each with a specific mood, a one-of-a-kind melodic hook, a particular story to tell, and a beginning, middle, and end. And that made all the difference.

How to account for this? More than any of the other second-generation jam bands, Gov’t Mule is rooted in the songcraft of Southern blues and hillbilly music, much like the genre’s twin pioneers the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers Band. Warren Haynes, the lead singer and guitarist for Gov’t Mule, also plays guitar for the current versions of the Dead and the Allmans, but unlike those repertory companies, Gov’t Mule generates new material. In fact, the highlights of Saturday’s show were Haynes’ compositions from Gov’t Mule’s latest album, By a Thread.

“Broke Down on the Brazos,” for example, opened with a modern funk riff but soon took the form of a traditional Texas blues fleshed out by amplifier overtones. His long red hair flying out over his shoulders, with different melodies for the verses and chorus, Haynes sang of being stranded on a Texas River, “up to my knees in water, up to my ears in dragonflies.” This grounded the ensuing guitar solos in an easily visualized story, which gave the improvisation considerably more weight. “Frozen Fear” did something similar over a pop-reggae groove by advising a troubled young friend to “rise and shine.” “Railroad Blues,” the traditional British ballad adapted by Gov’t Mule for the new album, was surprisingly understated and effective on the big Artscape stage.

Near the end of the set, right after Gov’t Mule covered Prince’s “When Doves Cry,” Haynes brought out Maryland’s Ron Holloway. Holloway, the tenor saxophonist in Dizzy Gillespie’s final quintet, has often joined Gov’t Mule onstage, and on Robert Johnson’s “32/20 Blues,” he engaged Haynes in a friendly duel of trading two-measure phrases, then single measures, as they patiently worked their way upward in pitch to an exhilarating climax. Two songs later, Holloway returned to add to the wall of sound on a cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” and the Haynes composition, “Soulshine,” originally recorded by the Allman Brothers.

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  • Chris

    Great review – only it's “Railroad Boy” not Blues