Warren Haynes & Gov’t Mule: Waging Post-Pandemic Peace

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By Shawn Perry

For any musician who needed a break from the hectic pace of album-tour-album-tour cycle, the COVID-19 pandemic was a blessing. Granted the loss of income hit many players where it hurt. For others with the right resources, it provided freedom to create, expand and grow. Gov’t Mule went in with both feet and tapped a creative wellspring that produced two albums — Heavy Load Blues, which dropped in 2021 and earned a Grammy nomination for Best Traditional Blues Album, and the 2023 follow-up, boiling over with musical cross-pollination and inner depth, called Peace…Like A River.

To showcase the second album, a plan was put into place to slowly preview bits and pieces on YouTube and on stage. Visualizers and live performances of “Dreaming Out Loud,” “Same As It Ever Was” and “Made My Peace” exemplify the level of craftsmanship and musicality put into the songs. It’s not like Gov’t Mule’s other albums lack these same qualities. The band’s 2017 release, Revolution Come…Revolution Go, is an equally rich tapestry of beyond-blues-based melodies and arrangements. With each album, band leader Warren Haynes takes one giant leap forward in sealing his legacy as one of the most versatile singers, songwriters, guitarists and producers of the last 30 years.

Speaking over the phone with the veteran musician, I got the lowdown on exactly how he and the rest of the band — drummer Matt Abts, keyboardist Danny Louis, and bassist Jorgen Carlsson (who has since been replaced by Kevin Scott) — approached recording both Heavy Load Blues and Peace…Like A River.

Gov’t Mule, 2023. Photo: Shervin Lainez

“I think the most significant thing is that we had all this time on our hands,” he tells me. “And the best way we knew to make the best of it was to record the two records. We couldn’t tour, we couldn’t travel, so we figured out a way of going in the studio and making two completely different sounding records at the same time in two different rooms in the same studio.

“It’s not something I would recommend under normal circumstances,” he advises with a laugh before adding, “I had written so much material at that point because we’d been home for so long, so it just felt good to record as much as possible.”

Whereas Heavy Load Blues finds the band stretching out as interpreters, Peace…Like A River has a sense of purpose, laced with pure creativity, collaboration, and calculation. Haynes told me that the album’s title came about when he realized the songs had “peace” and “river” in the lyrics.

“I wanted to come up with something that would combine those things together,” he explains. “I think if there’s an overall message, it’s about a search for inner peace.”

As we get into the album’s various songs, Haynes touches on their unique characteristics. He describes “Same As It Ever Was” as an “interesting choice for an opener because it’s got so many different moving sections and so many different moving parts. I like the fact that it starts out really quiet and people don’t know what they’re in for. Then, 30 seconds later, the thundering bass comes in and it’s off to the races.”

I mention how “Made My Peace” has a very Beatlesque vibe around it and Haynes agrees. “I think ‘Made My Peace’ is more Beatles-influenced than anything we’ve ever recorded. And a John Lennon influence as well. But it also has these other elements to it. I love the way the harmony vocals sound in the chorus. It stands out to me as being one of the songs that’s different than anything we’ve ever done.”

Peace…Like A River features guests on some of the tracks, and one can only speculate how Haynes was able bring such A-list talent to the record. It helps being a former member of the Allman Brothers Band, as well as a frequent collaborator with numerous others, including a recent session with Dolly Parton.

So, it’s no surprise to hear Billy Gibbons boogie down with the Mule on “Shake Our Way Out,” pushing possibly the best groove the ZZ Top frontman has slathered his trademark blues-infused guitar work and guttural growl with since Fandango. “His voice just brings the ZZ Top influence further into the picture,” Haynes muses.

Then there’s the jazzy smoothness of “Dreaming Out Loud” with Ivan Neville and Ruthie Foster. Both appear on Haynes’ 2011 solo album, Man In Motion, so he knew they could deliver the goods. “Our voices blend really well together,” he’s sure to point out. “I wanted it to be kind like a Family Stone type vibe where we’re trading lines and verses and choruses. That tune really came together nicely…horns and percussion and Ivan and Ruthie. It’s quite the ensemble.”

“The River Only Flows One Way” features none other than Billy Bob Thornton rapping himself through a swampy voodoo vamp that fizzles into a tuplet of dissonant harmonic intervals scrambling for semblance.

As for the choice of having the Oscar-winning actor on the record, Haynes didn’t have to think twice. “Billy Bob has one of those voices that when he is speaking like that just draws the listener in. I knew that I wanted the verses to be spoken-word type, and he kind of leaps to mind as the right character for that.”

Were the songs written with these particular folks in mind? Or was it more of a matter of time and circumstance and associations? Haynes says the idea to include guests really came after most of the songs were written and recorded. Ultimately, he thinks the connection with each of the guest artists and these particular songs makes total sense.

“I never want to force something into the equation,” he’s quick to clarify. “On ‘Just Across The River,’ I was thinking about a female gospel-type voice, and having heard Celisse recently, I thought her voice would be great for it.”

Tracking through the 12 songs on Peace…Like A River, there’s a loose cohesiveness threaded through a cornucopia of notes. Rockers like “Peace I Need” and “Head Full Of Thunder” capture the Mule’s chemistry in a nutshell, while lighter fare such as “You’re My Friend” and “Gone Too Long” are reflective of that “inner peace” Haynes talks about. We could have spent the rest of the afternoon dissecting every song, though the demands of the road sometimes delineates limitations of time.

Ryman Auditorium, 2023. Photo: David Sullenger

Gov’t Mule is a whole other story when it comes to playing live. Back in the 90s, I saw the original three-piece lineup (Haynes, Abts, and their dearly departed bassist brother, Allen Woody) rip it up a few times at small venues in California. I vividly remember three-hour, hard-rockin’ jam-a-thons with an equal measure of original tunes and covers I’d never heard other bands tackle. It was honest, electric, liberating.

A few days after speaking with Haynes, I ventured out to Nashville to take in Gov’t Mule’s appearance at the world-famous Ryman Auditorium (see my review). What a revelation! The four-piece version is a little more fluid and refined these days, but they haven’t lost that drive to dig in and jam. They teased the audience with glimpses of Peace…Like A River, unveiling “Dreaming Out Loud,” “Same As It Ever Was” and “Made My Peace.” Likely, more new songs will be slotted in as the album’s release approaches.

However, before going full monty with Peace…Like A River (fans may get the whole thing in late June after it comes out), Gov’t Mule is taking Dark Side Of The Mule out for a spin with Jason Bonham’s Led Zeppelin Experience. Recalling how impressed I’ve always been with the covers Gov’t Mule take on at their shows, I had to find out where that all came from.

“I grew up with two older brothers who were music fanatics and record collectors,” Haynes recalls. “Growing up in our house, there was literally thousands of albums. One of my brothers opened up his own record store. It was like growing up in a record store because everything was there, every genre of music. Even though my first love was soul music, I was hearing the Beatles and the Stones as well. My oldest brother brought home Jimi Hendrix, Cream and Johnny Winter, so I discovered all that music. They also had Coltrane, Miles Davis, Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, Elmore James, Son House, Albert King and all this great music from all over the map. I was able to tap into that at a really young age.”

Haynes frames playing covers as being as much about Gov’t Mule flexing its musical muscle as it is about paying tribute. “It’s music that never gets old. It only gets better with time and it’s fun for us occasionally to kind of take the liberty of doing somebody else’s music. It’s a whole different mindset than playing your own music. We’re paying homage to that music, but we’re also interpreting it our own way.”

As for bringing back Dark Side Of The Mule, which was issued as a live album in 2015, this will supposedly be the last time the band takes it on tour. “We had decided to not do it anymore, but with the 50th anniversary of The Dark Side Of The Moon, it seemed appropriate.”

It’s not enough that Warren Haynes pays tribute to his heroes; he’s also paid tribute with his heroes. Not that the Grateful Dead were hot on his radar when he was growing up, but he did figure in squarely as a stand-in for Jerry Garcia when Phil Lesh called and later when other surviving members came together as the Dead.

“I didn’t actually become a big fan until somewhere around 89,” he says. “I was late to the party, but one by one, I figured out how many great songs they had. So that’s what drew me in. Then I kind of got sucked into it, which was really more through my wife because she was a Deadhead. Once I started realizing how amazing that whole scene was, I got really fascinated with it. And it happened to coincide with me joining the Allman Brothers. Then I got a call from Phil in the 90s saying that he had made a list of musicians that he wanted to work with, and I was one of those people. Was I interested in coming to California to do a few shows? And I was like, ‘Yeah, absolutely,’” he laughs.

With Bob Weir at Mountain Jam, 2014. Photo: Stan Johnson

Of course, aside from Lesh, the Dead and Gov’t Mule, there were those stints with the Allman Brothers Band. When the original surviving members decided to reunite in 1989 to celebrate their 20th anniversary, Haynes was brought in by Dickey Betts as the band’s second guitarist. In the process, he recorded four albums with the Allmans, and his vocals and songwriting flourished right along with his razor-sharp guitar work. Haynes’ “Soulshine” appears on the Allman’s 1994 release Where It All Begins with Gregg Allman on lead vocals. It went on to become a fan favorite.

Haynes and Woody left in 1997 to narrow their focus on Gov’t Mule. But after Woody’s passing in 2000, Haynes resumed his place in the Allman Brothers Band with Derek Trucks as their second guitarist. The band carried on for the next 14 years until they decided to finally call it a day. It was during those years that I mostly saw Haynes with the Allmans, though I did manage to catch a Gov’t Mule show sometime around 2012 in Albany, New York.

As for seeing the Allman Brothers Band live, my last show was in 2013 during their annual Beacon Theatre run in New York City (see my review). It was impossible to ignore the fireworks between Haynes and Trucks. They were like the second coming of Duane Allman and Dickey Betts circa 1970 at the Fillmore East. It seemed like the whole band, especially Gregg Allman, were never better. Then it all ended the following year, and it was clear there was no coming back. According to Haynes, breaking up the Allman Brothers Band was a long time in the making.

With the Allman Brothers Band at the Beacon Theatre, 2013. Photo: Kimberly Annette

“It’s uncanny how great the band toward the end turned out to be,” he says. “That combination of elements was fantastic and just kept getting better and better. So we all loved doing it. But it got portrayed in the press that it was Derek and myself that wanted to call an end to it, when it was really the whole band. We had band meetings for years about picking the right time and place to stop because none of us wanted it to continue after the band started losing its magic. That was inevitable and it’s something that we all acknowledged.

“Then toward the end, certain people got cold feet and wanted to keep it going long past what some of us had planned around. Derek and myself, we had made a bunch of future plans based on a group decision and really didn’t see the possibility of that decision being reversed. So it got really misconstrued in the press. But it was a such an amazing experience for me till the very end. It was a dream come true.”

Even with so much history behind him, dreams are still coming true for Warren Haynes. Whether it’s honoring Lynyrd Skynyrd at the 2023 CMT Music Awards, serenading Willie Nelson during his 90th birthday party at the Hollywood Bowl, rolling through another one-of-a-kind Gov’t Mule show, or delivering a powerful album like  Peace…Like A River, you can see the man is living the dream. And waging post-pandemic peace for the rest of us.  

Ryman Auditorium, 2023. Photo: David Sullenger

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