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Rock’s longest players: Gov’t Mule, the jam band that conquered the world

Unstoppable: Gov't Mule
Unstoppable: Gov't Mule - Jay Sansone

In playing a collection of Pink Floyd songs at a concert at the Orpheum Theatre, in Boston on October 31 2008, Gov’t Mule thought they doing little more than adhering to a tradition beloved of improvisational “jam bands”. After all, for them and others, the idea of paying tribute to the greats on Halloween was nothing new. On this date in years past, “Mule”, as they are known to their friends, had devoted at least half of their show to artists such as (among others) Led Zeppelin, Neil Young, Black Sabbath and Jimi Hendrix. It was one-night special, was all. No big deal.

Only thing was, the band’s sizeable audience wouldn’t let it lie. After releasing the concert in both downloadable and physical forms, Gov’t Mule acceded to public demand by undertaking a Floyd-themed tour. “Then,” explains Warren Haynes, the band’s singer and guitarist, “this year we were reminded that this was the 50th anniversary of Dark Side Of The Moon and so everyone said, ‘If you’re ever going to bring it back, now’s the time’. So we did a handful of shows in the States with a full production… [which] we called Dark Side Of The Mule because we thought that was a clever way of describing it. It was a lot of fun.”

By the time the Atlanta band arrived in London for a recent concert at a full Palladium, Dark Side Of The Mule had at last been retired. But as Haynes peeled off one exquisite lead guitar motif after another, unbeknown to him, a mere 352-yards from this most celebrated of venues, a plaque on the wall of 309 Regent Street marks the site at which Pink Floyd were formed.

Certainly, the parallels between the two groups are worth noting. In the way that Floyd bridged the gap between mainstream and progressive rock, with albums such as Wish You Were Here and Animals, today Gov’t Mule are the portal linking the conventional sound of, say, Black Crowes with the world’s most sophisticated, and inscrutable, jam bands.

“We’re trying to do is strike a balance between songs and jamming,” Haynes says. “That’s what the Allman Brothers did and that’s what the Grateful Dead did. Because I feel like one without the other is not as dimensional as the two things together. Every night there’s this search for the balance between cool songs and improvisation… Improvisational music is very addictive to the people creating it because it’s so much fun for us. We’re completely lost in the music. In a good moment on a good night, you forget what you’re doing and you’re completely wrapped up in it. I feel like musicians who speak that language gravitate towards each other.”

With his sandpaper hair and broad shoulders, Warren Haynes sure looks like a man who keeps company with the kinds of bands who generate both music and stories. As well as being the kingpin of Gov’t Mule for almost 30-years (the group have recorded 13-studio albums), the 63-year old’s CV also includes spells as a lead guitarist with the Grateful Dead offshoot group The Dead - with whom he undertook two tours of US arenas, in 2003 and 2009 - Phil Lesh and Friends, the Dave Matthews Band, Les Claypool’s Fearless Flying Frog Brigade, and the progressive metal group Coheed and Cambria.

His journey began in earnest, though, in 1989 with an invitation to join the third iteration of The Allman Brothers Band for a potentially fraught 20th anniversary tour. In the 1970s, the Jacksonville group had twice disbanded for reasons of drug abuse, alcoholism, business squabbles, personal disharmony and even a legal case in which the testimony of Greg Allman resulted in a 75-year prison sentence for security man Scooter Herring on five counts of conspiracy to distribute cocaine (the sentence was later reduced by super-fan Jimmy Carter). Along with death threats, the guitarist’s loose lips attracted the enmity of bandmates who regarded him as a snitch.

All things considered, then, Warren Haynes’s surprise that his tenure with the group lasted for 22-years (over two terms) seems justified. “For the most part it was a much more sober version of the Allman Brothers, and a much more adult family oriented version,” he explains. “But I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it was completely that [way]. There were still some struggles at the time. And because the band has a history of not getting along, I didn’t expect to last very long, if for no other reason than they never seemed to make it more than three years without feuding and going their own separate ways.”

The Allman Bros on stage in 1972
The Allman Brothers on stage in 1972 - Alamy

Reliably late to the party, my first taste of Haynes’s remarkable musicality came when listening to an Allman Brothers concert while watching a crowd of 50,000 people descend on the Citi Field baseball stadium, in New York City, for an appearance by (the Grateful Dead-adjacent) Dead & Company this past June. At once, I was struck by how perfectly his searing lead guitar provided a private soundtrack to the sight of a tie-dye army many of whom, whether young or old, were inhaling joints, sucking back balloons of nitrous oxide, or else purchasing LSD and magic mushrooms from entrepreneurial Deadheads patrolling the parking lots. Certainly, it was the wildest scene I’ve witnessed in a long time. In fact, I would go so far as to describe it as proof that the People’s Republic of Rock’n’Roll lives on.

In London, things are a good deal more sedate. Upstairs in the first floor bar, fellas of a certain age form an orderly queue amid an atmosphere that might at least in part be informed by the Palladium’s ostentatiously ornate interior. Certainly, it’s difficult to cut loose in a venue staffed by ushers dressed in waistcoats and post-box formal wear. Suitably cowed, during moments in which Warren Haynes leads Gov’t Mule into the kind of song that sounds as if it should be played by a band standing behind chicken-wire, the audience remain seated.

“I think the European audiences in general are a little more subdued,” he tells me. “I came over [to the UK] with the Allman Brothers for the first time in ’91 and it was intimidating because we were wondering whether or not people liked us. But we came to realise that the European crowds were listening a little bit more and partying a little less. That’s my assessment of it anyway. They’re more like a jazz audience where people are hanging on every note and saving their applause for later. In the States, a lot of time people are applauding during the songs, which is not necessary.”

Warren Haynes of Gov't Mule
Warren Haynes of Gov't Mule

In truth, Gov’t Mule are one of the few bands of their kind who even know of a difference between here and there. Regardless of popularity, under normal circumstances the likelihood of seeing a jam band onstage in Europe is about the same as catching Chas & Dave on tour in the United States. Despite playing 212 concerts in eight years, Dead & Company, who bowed out in July with three concerts in front of more than 150,000 people at Oracle Park in San Francisco, declined to travel further east than Boston. The comparably popular Phish – who in April will become the second group after U2 to take up residency at the Sphere, in Las Vegas – last came to London 26 years ago.

Despite his paucity of first-hand action, however, all it took for me to tumble headfirst down an apparently bottomless improvisational rabbit-hole was a monthly subscription to the concert streaming site Nugs.net. From this simple transaction, an entire subculture of strange and boundless music has sashayed into view. Not every group on the roster is a jam band – the catalogue contains an entire library of Springsteen concerts, for one thing – but those that are are easy to spot. If an opening song lasts longer than an episode of Coronation Street, you’re in business.

The names keep coming – all of them unknown to me, most of them weird. Scores of gigs by Widespread Panic, Dark Star Orchestra, Voodoo Dead, Umphrey’s McGee, The String Cheese Incident, Railroad Earth, Pigeons Playing Ping Pong, and dozens of others. It’s like discovering a hidden continent in a world of music that I thought I knew at least reasonably well. Of this eccentric parade, the Connecticut quintet Goose are my current favourites; in particular, I recommend the 21-minute version of the song Hot Tea that opens the first of two sets at this year’s Cascade Equinox Festival, in Redmond, Oregon, on September 24. Like I said, I’ve got it bad.

For their part, Gov’t Mule conform to the characteristics of their scene by spending a startling amount of time on the road. “I always tell people that we’re getting paid for the travelling and the inconvenience and the crappy food and the shitty hotel rooms, [and that] the payoff is walking onstage and doing what you love to do,” Haynes explains. “I make a living doing what I love, which is not what most people get to do.” Even here, there are differences from the norms of conventional rock’n’roll. For one thing, a jam band will almost never play the same set twice.

And so it is that ticketholders at the Palladium who may have been hoping for an encore of Pink Floyd’s Comfortably Numb are left disappointed in a heart-pleasing way. “Just to be serious for a moment,” announces Warren Haynes, “but our friend Bernie Marsden passed away recently”. Long accustomed to seeing the erstwhile Whitesnake guitarist – rightly regarded as one of the finest English-born blues players of his generation – whenever they visited Europe, the 72-year old’s passing, in August of this year, is an absence keenly felt. By way of goodbye, Gov’t Mule close their set with a luxurious and patient version of Ain’t No Love In The Heart Of The City.

“Bernie and I were friends for a long time,” Haynes explains. “He’s actually one of the first musicians I met when the Allman Brothers came to London… We became friends and stayed in touch, and when Gov’t Mule came not only to the UK but to Europe in general, sometimes Bernie would show up and we’d invite him to get on the bus for a few days. And he would literally ride with us, sometimes for three or four days at a time. So we shared a lot of late-night stories. I loved him dearly. He was a beautiful human being and an incredible musician.”

Asked if Bernie Marsden ever joined Gov’t Mule onstage for the occasional jam, Warren Haynes laughs before replying, “Oh yeah, many times”.


Gov’t Mule’s latest album, Peace… Like A River, is available now on Fantasy Records