“My whole life’s been filled with dreams and songs,” Warren Haynes sang with a touch of melancholy in his voice as Gov’t Mule played its last song of a two-set, three-hour show in Milwaukee on May 26. It was a typical Mule performance, and by typical I mean an unpredictable hybrid of hard rock, blues, jazz and soul that amounts to a sensory assault. Both cerebral and carnal, it is an expression of rock 'n’ roll as an art form of intellectual, emotional and physical pleasure.
“Dreams and Songs,” from Gov’t Mule’s new record "Revolution Come... Revolution Go," is a soulful, blues inflected examination of life at the edges of creative pursuit and passion. The only escape, the only means of transcendence Haynes can offer out of the “mess” of social strife or personal disappointment is his own dreams and songs.
Gov’t Mule bequeaths the songs and dreams of Haynes to a rabid audience of highly devoted followers almost without rest. Like Bob Dylan, Haynes (either with Mule or in a solo capacity) seems on a “never-ending” quest to find the perfect musical moment and replicate it according to routine. As he told me when we talked before the Milwaukee concert, “There’s something magical that happens when the music is aligned just right with the wave that’s coming from the audience.”
"Revolution Come... Revolution Go," like previous Mule albums, is an exhibition of border jumping. “We try to capture what we do on stage in the studio,” Haynes explained, “whereas most bands try to re-create what they do in the studio on stage.” Mule moves its freight into different territories of musicality without difficulty. Just as the band does onstage, the new record effortlessly shifts from Black Sabbath style riffs (“Stone Cold Rage,” “Drawn That Way) to Al Green-inspired soul (“Sarah Surrender”) before finding its way into the backwoods of Southern rock and country (“Traveling Tune”).
“Every Mule record has, at least, two or three departure songs, meaning songs one wouldn’t expect to hear from a rock band” Haynes said. “It is always important to us to explore all the influences we have and music we love. It wouldn’t be fair to us or our fans if we only showcased part of what we love. We like the records to be mini-versions of our concerts — up and down, a journey. We would never be happy with anything less.”
A Gov’t Mule concert often sounds and feels like one giant song with a massive groove that shape-shifts according to different stylistic genres and traditions. Whether the band is playing an instrumental jazzy jam, Haynes is shredding like a hard rock wild man or the musicians are easing into a Memphis soul rhythm, the up-and-down journey is an exploration of synthesis — unity and community through melody — as musical guide and device. “All of the great music that we love,” Haynes summarized as spokesman for the band, “takes a little of this and a little of that. The great artists never believed that they had to stay within certain parameters. Why would anyone want to limit themselves?”
The ease in which coalescence transpires in art presents a model for human fulfillment, but the cavern separating artistry, the universe of dreams and songs, and politics, the province of stone cold rage, is at a wider point than Haynes, in his three decades of touring the world as sideman for the Allman Brothers and frontman for Gov’t Mule, has ever measured. (This interview was conducted before the May 27 death of Gregg Allman.) “Pressure Under Fire,” a new song from "Revolution Come... Revolution Go," is an “idealistic resurrection of the '60s mantra,” according to Haynes. It is a song of mourning, despite its large, sparse and open rock 'n’ roll quality, for “the feeling that should have never gone away — the feeling that compels us to try to unite and get involved.”
Haynes’ lyrics cleverly contrast the almost naïve optimism of the unification sentiment with the harsh and jagged reality of human failure that consistently troubles the application of optimism:
Just another song about the same thing
So many have been written
You’d think by now we’d know better
Maybe just one lonely voice is never gonna be enough
We’ve all got to sing it together
“Pressure Under Fire” is the expansive inspection for the unity and harmony in the real world that Haynes concedes he can find only in the nocturnal vision of his imagination or when he is in the act of musical creation. What happens on the stage and in the studio is as real and authentic as anything that takes place in a street protest or voting booth, but Haynes seems haunted by the historical inability to engineer a connection between those two experiences. The ultimate dream is to achieve the fluidity he finds between musical methods in the bloody battlefield of politics.
As part of the Allman Brothers, Haynes helped raise $1 million for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008. He also donated his solo song paying tribute to grassroots political power, “River’s Gonna Rise,” to Occupy This Album, a benefit record raising funds to directly support Occupy Wall Street organizations. It is not as if he is without a strong point of view or that he in neutral on the matter of President Donald Trump. “When I see Trump move his mouth, I hear nothing but bullshit,” he said. The songs on "Revolution Come... Revolution Go," however, are more observant than polemical.
“As a songwriter, my job is to paint a picture with my overall perspective,” Haynes offered, “The political songs were written before the election. They are vantage points. Because we tour all over the country, we can see the political climate, and people are angrier and more volatile than I’ve ever seen. Anger is justifiable, but it is unhealthy when it is disrupting friendships and dividing families. I’ve never seen that before.”
The outcome of the election did not influence the new songs other than Haynes’ declaration of “thank God for music,” and his and the band’s decision to immerse themselves in their own creativity. Records, Haynes explained, act as “documentation of a band’s life and focus at a particular point in their career.” All the songs on "Revolution Come... Revolution Go" were developed over a period of 15 months, with the recording session beginning on Election Day.
“The album title seemed perfect given the political developments,” Haynes said. “But I gave the song itself that title — ‘Revolution Come... Revolution Go’ — because it turned into a sprawling centerpiece with many different movements and influences. So I wrote a lyric that connected with the music.” When I remarked that the unscripted symbiosis of the record title and the dramatic transition in presidencies is “quite a coincidence,” Haynes smiled and shrugged his shoulders.
“Art plays an extraordinary role especially in times of division,” Haynes said circling back to the value of music and creativity. “There’s a way that music or any creative project has of presenting an idea that is more palatable and soothing than just the expression of a belief. So many people are stuck in a grind, and music is always a way to transport yourself out of it.”
The transportation — through revolutionary change or out of the tedium of everyday existence — is best without a cartographer. “Music has always been ahead of the curve as far as breaking barriers,” Haynes explained in an elevation of music as being emblematic of an ideal sociology. “Whatever feels good is good.”
At the risk of contradicting his theory of music as transgressive, I asked how he would define Gov’t Mule – a band that critics call “Southern rock,” “blues rock” and “jam rock”: “We have one foot in the jam world and one foot in rock world, but we’re uncomfortable with labels. No one wants to embrace a stereotype because it can be very limiting. In the same way, the Allman Brothers were always uncomfortable with the term ‘Southern rock’ because of the limitations associated with it," he said.
"Gov’t Mule is a rock ’n’ roll band, but we’re very influenced by jazz and blues and soul music. That’s the way it was in the late ’60s and early ’70s," he added. "FM radio would play all that music under the heading of rock ’n’ roll. You would hear Jimi Hendrix and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, and then Sly and the Family Stone. It was all rock ’n’ roll. We’ve taken a cue from that open mindedness.”
Ernest Hemingway once delineated an existentialist ethic, explaining that with the exception of sociopaths, people can determine whether an action is good by if they feel good after performing it. Haynes and Gov’t Mule maintain the profound simplicity of “the good” in their approach to music, adopting a childlike attitude of playfulness.
Watching the band sound check a blistering version of the Albert King classic “Feel Like Breaking Up Somebody’s Home” it was impossible to not share in the infectious joy throughout the room. Danny Louis, Gov’t Mule’s virtuoso keyboard player, and Jorgen Carlsson, one of the best bassists in rock, looked at each with laughter as the band aligned into a groove. Haynes shouted in full voice and stretched out his guitar solo as if he were playing to a sold-out stadium. The energy of music appears to animate the members of Mule, regardless of setting or circumstance.
“If you don’t place what you truly love above what you think people might enjoy, you do yourself a disservice,” Haynes advised as he summarized his approach to music and the business of music. “Don’t get me wrong, we love the fact that we have an audience of like-minded people who enjoy what we do, but the decisions that we make from a business perspective and musically are all based on what we would really like to do. If you do that, your audience is built accordingly.”
Gov’t Mule, with its mere presence, is countercultural in an era when highly produced, digitized and computerized music dominates much of the airwaves and rapidly runs up the charts. Mule records all of its studio albums live, with minimal overdubs, and will often extend a song more than 10 minutes by drawing out phrases and improvising until the musicians find the feeling they are hoping to exercise and express. “It is important to us to be a little esoteric. So, that wins out,” Haynes reflected.
“Miles Davis had a way of reinventing himself every two years,” Haynes remembered while giving gratitude to one of his influences. “When he would put out a new record often the critics and even the audience would wonder, What is this all about? Then, two years later everyone is praising it, and he’s moved onto something else. That was him as an innovator continuing to challenge himself. I’ve learned a lot from those kinds of artists.”
Haynes looked to the side and looked back with a disarming smile of unpretentious enthusiasm: “You have to make yourself happy. That’s what art is. Where you draw the line between art and commerce is ever changing and always has been, but it is not art if you don’t make yourself happy in the process.”
Gov’t Mule plays a wildly different set list every night on the road. The discipline of diversity in musical output is partially a commercial decision. Haynes explained that to write the set list for the Milwaukee performance, he reviewed the past five set lists Mule played in Milwaukee so as to ensure lack of repetition for fans who attend multiple shows. Even his commitment to giving the audience a new experience reverses course back to the band’s own enjoyment. Playing a similar set for each show would become “boring,” to use his word.
The organic power of a life dedicated to dreams and songs is the potential of inspiration. Perhaps, the best way toward emancipation out of political bitterness and partisan hostility is the creation of more art — the injection of joyful craftsmanship into the lives of more citizens. “I think people would be happier and our country would be happier if more people found time to do what they love,” Haynes declared with hope/ “Whether it is playing music, writing poems or making pottery, people need something to get them out of the grind and to liberate their minds.”
Haynes added essential nuance to his prescription for fulfillment: “Much of what people used to take for granted — working full time and having enough to raise a child, for example — is gone.” The corrosive influence of money in politics and the heartbreaking juxtaposition of escalating costs of living with stagnating wages are political problems in desperate need of political solutions, Haynes argued, but the necessity of art, for consumers and creators, is imperishable.
There is wisdom, as loud as a rock riff and tender as a soulful serenade, in the smiles on the faces of Gov’t Mule when the band achieves the musical magic of spontaneous discovery, or what Haynes called, “momentary composition.” “Whatever music you like, no matter who you are, nobody can tell you not to like it,” Haynes said. “And no one can force you to like something else. Music has always defied categorization.”
Creativity according to impulse and intuition provides magnificent instruction for a culture cracked apart according to an ideological fracture line. Gov’t Mule, a band of singular power and unique excellence, whose every record and concert is an irreplicable experience in itself, will continue to compose at the direction of the internal conductor whose only manual is the fierce urgency of the present. Art, the mysterious product and producer of any culture worthy of residence, will become the result. Without it, dreams and songs — in politics, daily life or in the recording studio — won’t amount to much.
After Haynes suggested that young musicians investigate 50 years' worth of music in all genres, rather than five in their own, for inspiration and influence, I observed, “No matter what we discuss, it seems you keep coming back to this theme of openness and exploration.”
Haynes slowly nodded his head: “That’s what it’s all about.”