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Grow Jams

Warren Haynes leads Gov’t Mule into its Next Chapter

MULTI-INSTRUMENTAL: Warren Hayes (far left) not only leads Gov't Mule (pictured), he also plays a role in jam titans The Dead and The Allman Brothers Band.

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 12/22/2004

Gov’t Mule performs at Rams Head Tavern Dec. 27 and 28

No one has a better perspective on today’s jam-band scene than Warren Haynes. The 44-year-old North Carolina native is not only the singer-guitarist in the genre’s twin giants—the (formerly Grateful) Dead and the Allman Brothers Band—but he’s also the leader of Gov’t Mule, perhaps the best of the genre’s second-generation bands. Haynes is the scene’s biggest supporter and hardest worker—in addition to the three acts above, he also does solo-acoustic shows and gigs with Phil Lesh and Friends—but he zeroes in on the field’s biggest weaknesses.

“The fact that we have this jam-band scene is wonderful,” he says. “There are a lot of cool bands out there under the jam-band umbrella, but the ones I think will stand the test of time are the ones who write good songs. We need to have good songwriting. The Dead and the Allman Brothers, who are the forerunners of this scene, were really good at jamming, but they also had really good songs, and it was the combination of the two that enabled them to have enduring careers.

“And the reason they were so good at songwriting is that they were connected to roots music. Paradoxically, musicians that look to the past for inspiration and study the music that went before them stand a better shot at finding their own voice. None of us come out of the womb with that voice—that voice is a combination of all your influences and experiences filtered through your own brain and imagination.”

When Gov’t Mule comes to Baltimore next week, it will focus on the songs from its new album Déjà Voodoo. Those songs, all written or co-written by Haynes and sung by him, are drenched in the blues, and give the lyrics as much weight as the instrumental breaks. Its best songs—”Perfect Shelter,” “Little Toy Brain,” “Wine and Blood,” and “No Celebration”—are haunted by a sense of loss, inspired not only by the 2000 death of Mule bassist Allen Woody, but also by the Sept. 11 attacks near Haynes’ Manhattan apartment. The blues-rooted acknowledgement that life is short and often unpleasant distinguishes these songs from the rose-tinted romanticism of most jam-band songwriting.

“The things I’m writing about since Woody’s death are different from what I was writing about before his death,” Haynes admits. “That gets pretty personal, and I think I’m better off letting the songs speak for themselves. But I will say this: A song like ‘Perfect Shelter’ recognizes that something like this could happen to any of us, and that’s what makes us all equal. After Woody died, one of the things that hit me in a major way was how important life is, and how much you need to cherish life and not sweat the small stuff.”

Haynes and Woody had been members of the Allman Brothers Band for five years when they were riding the band’s bus in 1994, listening to Cream and the Jimi Hendrix Experience. “Why doesn’t anyone do this anymore?” Haynes remembers Woody asking. “Why don’t you see this kind of improvisational trio anymore?” The more they talked about it, the more the two musicians were tempted to try it themselves. Haynes knew the perfect drummer—Matt Abts, his bandmate in Dickey Betts’ late-’80s group. Gov’t Mule was born.

The trio was originally intended to be a one-off studio project, but as the three musicians rehearsed and wrote songs, they realized they weren’t willing to let the band go. The Allman Brothers Band was at a particularly low point in those years—rarely rehearsing, seldom varying their set lists, refusing to work on new songs or new records, and torn by dissension. By 1997, Haynes and Woody had decided to leave the Allmans and devote themselves full-time to Gov’t Mule.

“The first album [1995’s Gov’t Mule] was a mission to bring back that whole improvisational trio sound,” Haynes says. “We knew if we did a second album [and they did, 1998’s Dose], we’d experiment a little more and showcase a few more influences and start heading down some different paths. We also knew by the time we got to the third studio album [2000’s Life Before Insanity], we’d do more production, more overdubs, with Woody and I playing more instruments and creating more sounds. That was our plan all along, so you could see the natural progression with each record.”

The planned progression was interrupted, however, by Woody’s death from “unknown causes” on Aug. 26, 2000, a shock that left Haynes believing it might be the end of Gov’t Mule. He started getting calls and letters from other bands that had dealt with the death of a band member—the Allman Brothers Band, the Grateful Dead, Widespread Panic, Blues Traveler and others. And their advice was unanimous.

“They all said, ‘Hey, I know you think you can’t go on, but you can—and it’s the best thing you can do,’” Haynes says. “They all said that the person who’s not there would want the band to keep going. I realized that if the Allman Brothers had broken up after Duane died, they never would have reached their greatest success—and I never would have gotten to know Woody.”

One of those advisors, Widespread Panic bassist Dave Schools, volunteered to help Gov’t Mule fulfill its fall dates in 2002. When people asked who would become Woody’s permanent replacement, Haynes would joke that he’d need John Entwhistle for certain songs, Phil Lesh for other songs, and Bootsy Collins for still others. From that joke came the idea of doing an album with Woody’s bass heroes. Haynes drew up a wish list of several dozen names, figuring that enough people would say yes to fill out a CD.

To his surprise, nearly everyone said yes—not only Schools, Entwhistle, Lesh, and Collins but also Jack Casady, Les Claypool, Tony Levin, Billy Cox, Mike Gordon, Victor Wooten, Jason Newsted, Alphonso Johnson, Me’ Shell NdegéOcello, Flea, Larry Graham, and others—enough to fill up two studio discs, 2001’s Deep End, Volume 1 and 2002’s Deep End, Volume 2, and a double-CD live album, 2003’s Deepest End.

Eventually, though, Haynes and Abts had to find new permanent members if Gov’t Mule was to continue. They first added Danny Louis, the ex-keyboardist for Joe Cocker, UB40, and Haynes’ first solo band, and then Andy Hess, former bassist for the Black Crowes and John Scofield. Haynes was looking for musicians whose interests are as diverse as his—not only jam-band music and psychedelic rock, but also blues, R&B, folk, alt-rock, jazz, and country.

“The last thing we wanted was a Woody clone,” Haynes says. “We wanted someone who respected Woody and knew his music, but we wanted someone who had their own personality. We wanted to treat the new members like Woody and I were treated when we first joined the Allman Brothers. It was always left up to us how much to pay tribute to what had been done before and how much to inject ourselves. I was never told, ‘Play this more like Duane.’”

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