Milli Vanilli was a weightless pop duo making throwaway music destined to fade into the black hole of American memory if not for a “scandal” revealing that the two male heartthrobs were lip syncing during their live performances, and were often not even recording their own vocal parts in the studio. Their exposure in 1989 was validation for many music critics and social commentators who feared that American culture was moving into the age of artifice. The overwhelming commercialism of art and entertainment had steadily begun to prioritize product packaging over creativity. Milli Vanilli’s implosion demonstrated that a pop act could rise to levels of superstardom without any semblance of musical talent or skill.
Thirty years later, lip syncing during live performances is standard operating procedure, without protest, for many of pop’s biggest stars, and in the rare event of actual singing, autotune can correct any pitch errors or bad notes.
“Bring On the Music — Live at the Capitol Theatre,” a new concert film and audio release package from Gov’t Mule, arrives in a moment of musical mediocrity like an elixir of excellence for the spirit, helping to, if not restore imagination to pop culture, at least give a glimpse of what it can achieve when combined with craft and sophistication.
Gov’t Mule began as an experimental gambit on the tour bus for the Allman Brothers Band in 1994. Warren Haynes, a genuine rock and roll zelig who, at the time, played guitar with uncanny resemblance to Duane Allman in ABB, and Allen Woody, the bassist for the Brothers, contemplated how they might explore their musical interests independent of Gregg Allman’s legendary band during the six months of the year that they were not on tour. In a recent interview I conducted with Haynes, Gov’t Mule’s lead singer, guitarist, and chief composer, he said: “We were listing to Hendrix or Cream, and Allen said, ‘No one is doing this power trio thing anymore. With the right drummer you and I could pull this off. I said, ‘the right drummer is Matt Abts.’” The result was Gov’t Mule.
At the gestation stage, Gov’t Mule imagined they would release one record to support one, brief tour, and that they would make and play only unstructured, improvised, barely composed songs. “We soon realized, though, that there’s a lot of red tape. We have to get a record label involved,” Haynes said, “So, we decided to include some structured songs. ‘Trane’ is one of the songs on that first album that is an entirely improvised jam, whereas ‘Monkey Hill is more of a straightforward rock and roll song. ‘World of Difference’ is a combination of both approaches.”
Twenty-four years later, Gov’t Mule has released 10 studio records, sold out theaters around the world, and has planted its flag of conquest high on top of a musical mountain, earning the reputation as one of the most exciting, diverse, and skillful live bands in existence.
“Bring On The Music — Live at the Capitol Theatre,” shot in April 2018 in Port Chester, NY, and directed by renowned photographer Danny Clinch, is both a victory lap and an explosive invitation to visit the emporium of a band that dedicates itself to spontaneity, in a pop culture of predictability, and soul, in an age of the superficial.
If it was biologically possible for a ménage à trois between Jimmy Page, Jerry Garcia, and Wilson Pickett to conceive a child, the child’s name would be Warren Haynes. His leadership of Gov’t Mule gives the band a similarity of the Chicago Bulls of the 1990s. Michael Jordan received most of the attention and adulation, but the team worked as a collective unit, with extraordinary players like Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, and Ron Harper, to win multiple championships.
The all stars in Mule include the aforementioned Abts, who plays with thunderous power and precision, managing to get on the other side of all of Haynes’ wild guitar virtuosity, and inject imaginative verve in Mule’s music with dynamic fills and solos. Jorgen Carlsson, Mule’s third bassist following the untimely death of Allen Woody and the departure of Andy Hess, is nimble enough to riff like Lemmy Kilmister, and groove like Chris Squire. Carlsson might have summarized Mule’s music best in the concert film with his simple phrase, “Rock and roll with a jazz formula.”
In 2002, Gov’t Mule added a fourth member to the band, keyboardist, and sometimes trombone player, sometimes rhythm guitarist, Danny Louis. Louis once told me that he aspires to play the keys for Mule in a style of “Deep Purple meets ‘Bitches Brew.’” He can play in a traditional style on blues and ballads, but when he lets loose with funky eccentricity, he enhances the band’s identity as something that is brilliant in its resistance to identification.
The anti-identity of Gov’t Mule likely emanates out of the band’s commitment to spontaneous creation. “What we do on stage is more improvised than I would guess even most of the fans think,” Haynes told me when explaining how a new jam, often featuring teases of cover songs, comes together, “We rehearse the basics of it briefly so that we feel comfortable with it, but then we put it aside, because if it leads to the creation of a moment, we would rather have that moment happen on stage than in rehearsal.”
Haynes then recalled discussions with Dickey Betts, an original guitarist of the Allman Brothers Band, in which they determined it was best to play a jam on stage “an unspecified amount of times until it really comes together, and then put it back on the shelf for awhile so that when you play it again you aren’t simply trying to replicate what you did before.” “You have to do everything you can,” Haynes said, “to avoid it becoming stock or repetitive.”
Gov’t Mule records all of their studio albums live in the studio without rehearsal, often composing in real time, and when arranging setlists for the concerts, Haynes reviews the sets of previous performances in the same city so as to guard against giving repeat Mule attendees, of which there are many, a duplication of a past appearance.
“We feel more comfortable on stage than anywhere,” Haynes said, “We love making studio records, and we’re proud of all of the records, but it is more of a labor-intensive process than doing what we love on stage. Songs come to life in live performance, and sometimes it takes 30 or 40 performances for that to happen. So, sometimes the studio version of a song is the definitive version, but often it is just a blueprint.”
There is a fifth element to the Mule experience — the audience. “For bands who do what we do, which is thrive in a live setting, it is impossible to conjure up the necessary energy without a live crowd,” Haynes said.
There are bands, perhaps most famously The Eagles, who would prompt people to say, usually as a compliment oddly enough, that their live shows sound “exactly like their records.” Mule’s audience, in the words of Danny Louis, “gives the band the greenlight to take chances and risks.”
When I asked Haynes if the expectation of surprise places more pressure on Gov’t Mule than a band playing standard versions of the same songs ad nauseam, he gave a counterintuitive answer: “It is less pressure on us, because it doesn’t feel like pressure. It feels like a license.”
Anyone who has given license to Mule to stampede past the boundaries of musical convention will have noticed that in their two set shows, the first typically showcases their more direct and confrontational rock and roll, and it is in the second set, where they get more fully dimensional and dexterous, playing spacey jams with seemingly loose, but exciting transitions.
“If you look at the Allman Brothers and the Grateful Dead as the two forerunners of the whole jam band scene,” Haynes explained, “they established the template of a two hour or three hour show. There was always more spacey exploration and experimentation in the second half of the show. We do that not to just fall into line with traditional thinking, but because it makes sense given that the more warmed up and relaxed you get on stage, the more capable you become of chasing that uncharted path.” Haynes then recalled with laughter when he suggested to the Allman Brothers that they open with “Whipping Post” — “It was an in your face, imminent version, and it surprised the audience, but there was a sense of, ‘where do we go from here?’”
“Bring On the Music” is no exception to tradition. During the first set, Mule rumbles through raucous and ribald versions of “Drawn That Way,” a high energy rocker with an AC/DC style riff casting delightful aspersions on the hypocrisies of organized religion, a punk energy medley of their own “Funny Little Tragedy” and The Police’s “Message in a Bottle,” and “Mr. Man,” a maximum intensity indictment of financial and political power ignoring the needs of the poor. On the latter, Abts plays with a fury fit for the rage of the lyrics, and Haynes takes the mid-song breakdown from contemplativeness with bluesy licks into full blown rage. The highlight of the first set, however, is “Far Away,” an original ballad that slowly swells into an explosion of intimate passion. Mule has played the song only 21 times in the past 20 years.
The second set begins with “Life Before Insanity,” and gathers force with the one abstract jam after another — “Thorns of Life,” “Trane,” “Revolution Come, Revolution Go.” Haynes provides an exhibition in excellence with Mule’s original, “Time To Confess,” playing a wild and unpredictable four minute guitar solo. Then, offers yet another surprise with a cover of the Pearl Jam deep cut, “Come Back.” The soulful James Brown meets Paul Rodgers vocal delivery of Haynes elevates the song to a new level, soaring to heights previously unreachable with Eddie Vedder’s mumbling and spasmatic shrieking.
“The most important thing,” according to Haynes, when assembling a setlist and playing a show is the “contrast between major keys and minor keys, different tempos, different rhythmic feels, and also the balance between the songs that are stretched out and open themselves up to improvisation and the songs that are scripted and to the point. The goal is to achieve an ultimate balance between all of those things. Over the course of three hours, the more places you can go musically, the more interesting it is going to be for us, and the more it becomes a journey on which the audience can ride along.”
It might seem contradictory, but one of the most fascinating attributes of Gov’t Mule is the ability to take an artistic journey with both intelligence in their sense of direction and an experimental aimlessness. The band has never had to compromise on their creativity, because they have gathered an audience that grants them the freedom and flexibility to experiment, and in doing so, run the script through the shredder.
“Without the audience, and without our particular type of audience,” Haynes said, “We wouldn’t have a reason or opportunity to do what we do. So, we feel that even if there are some people who don’t get what we do instantaneously, and some who don’t get it at all, not compromising has gotten us where we are. It’s also what’s going to keep us on the beam.”
The attendant benefits of creating songs become clear in the concert film when Haynes remarks, “Music not only get us through the hardships, but can often turn the hardships into something positive and beautiful.”
When the center of pop culture has begun to decay from the sludge running through the mainstream, Gov’t Mule offers the promise of an inspirational alternative. It is especially important when so much of music has become disposable – the property of television commercials, forgettable viral sensations, and reality television programs that present karaoke as genius. Gov’t Mule is delivering a different message.
Art should free the artist, but also embolden the audience. It should telegraph the possibility of discovering paradise through destruction of the compass.