Gov't Mule & Jackie Greene |
at Mountain Park,
Holyoke, Mass. (15 August 2010)
I don't need a James Lipton interview for me to reveal to the world what my favorite sound is. It's a well-played guitar, of course. That was one reason why I was determined to see Gov't Mule in person last summer. I wanted to be mesmerized one more time by Warren Haynes. In spite of the weather that showed up that day, I was not at all disappointed. And the music I heard that night still haunts me, months later.
I had seen Warren Haynes perform with the Dead in the spring of 2009 and with the Allman Brothers in the summer of 2005. He's a busy guy who currently works with at least three bands, bestowed as he is with the burden of being a tremendously talented and in-demand guitarist. I had been impressed with his handiwork before. I had fallen in love with hearing "Soulshine" on classic-rock radio. So when I found out that Gov't Mule would be playing at a location just one hour away from me, I was more than ready to get in the car and go.
The former site of an amusement park that closed in 1987, Mountain Park is a relatively new and informal venue for concerts. It is basically an open field with a stage at one end and a hillside at the other. The barest of amenities (meaning: both portable vendors and potties) line one outer edge. The tickets are all general admission. If you want to sit on something other than the ground, then you'll have to bring a chair or a blanket with you. But you won't be able to put either one on the plot right in front of the stage. That area is "reserved" for standing and dancing. Only the stage is covered by a roof. In a way, it could have been our very own Woodstock -- a similarity made even more eerie with the knowledge that this day marked the 41st anniversary of that historic gathering.
Tonight's opening act was young Californian Jackie Greene. I hadn't known anything about him, although anyone could see he was on the young side. (Not even 30 yet, as it turned out.) He had shoulder-length brown hair, wore a funky hat, carried himself like Dylan and chain-smoked off stage. He had a three-piece band behind him. And he played the guitar like a seasoned master. His 11-song set included the original songs "Shaky Ground," "Gone Wanderin'," "Medicine," "A Moment of Temporary Color" and "Hollywood." Jackie sang them all with a clear voice. And unlike the musicians you might come across in a neighborhood garage, Jackie and his band exuded confidence. They had no need for theatrics. There was no posturing or unnecessary strutting. They merely gave us good, interesting, solid rock and blues.
Toward the end of their performance, they launched into two Beatles covers: the psychedelic "Tomorrow Never Knows," which somehow led into "Taxman." After hearing so many of Jackie's originals up to that point, it was fascinating to see what he could do with songs that were released before he was born. He and his band rose to the occasion. They finished with his own creation, "Like a Ball & Chain." Jackie and his roadie dealt with cord and amplification problems for the duration of that tune; but the performer kept the pace going and never missed a beat, even when we couldn't actually hear his instrument. He had already impressed me with his songwriting and his guitarmanship, and now his professionalism had surfaced as well. I was honored to have witnessed it all.
During Jackie's opener, the skies had changed from mostly cloudy to solidly overcast. Soon a few random raindrops began to fall. Stagehands draped tarps over the equipment perched along the sides and the back of the open-air stage. Everyone out in the yard was subject to the elements, however. With the break in the music, I gathered up my blanket, put on my ball cap, and retrieved my poncho from the bottom of my bag, just in case. I had watched the weather maps earlier in the day and had expected to get a little damp. No worries.
Not knowing much about Gov't Mule's music, I had also prepared for the concert by borrowing a library copy of their High & Mighty album. I had really liked several songs that I heard on it. The selections were well suited for accompanying my daily commute. I knew that this band changed its set list every night. But I had hopes of hearing one or two of those now-familiar refrains. Other than that and the eagerness to see Haynes in action, I had no further demands on the rest of the outing.
Gov't Mule stepped onto the stage as heavy clouds skittered ever faster overhead. Haynes was joined by Jorgen Carlsson on bass, Danny Louis on keyboards and Matt Abts on drums. But, really: Gov't Mule = Warren Haynes. The other band members are talented, but they all defer to their leader. Now that I was standing only a few feet from the front rim of the stage, I could spot how closely they watched Warren for the slight nods of direction that he used to either continue or to close their extensive jams. I could see the value of the general admission ticket and the ability to get up close and personal with the performers. This was going to be fun.
The band began with "Bad Man Walking" and "Perfect Shelter," as a light rain fell. Warren urged us to "Come on down," so a few hundred people were soon standing next to me and swaying right below the band. (Some were perhaps also assuming the stage roof would offer a bit of respite from the rain. Alas, it did not.) The music continued with "Steppin' Lightly," an expanded jam of "King's Highway" and "Forevermore." Warren was in great voice. The melodies and riffs launched from his guitar seemed to come effortlessly. And by concentrating on this music, we could be transported into the roots of rock itself. We could have been standing anywhere at all surrounded by that sound, and not on a field in western Massachusetts, elbow-to-elbow with a bunch of wet strangers.
"Don't Step on the Grass, Sam" was an audience participation number. One of the crew members walked in front of the band with cue cards in order to prompt us. Even those folks who might not have known the song (like me) were eager to shout out the responses. And although I had never heard that tune before, I sure knew what it segued into: "Mississippi Queen" by Mountain. The transition was flawless, and it made perfect sense. Now we could begin to sense connections to the wider musical universe.
As if to mock our enjoyment, the latch on the celestial floodgates burst open, and we were dosed with a downpour. I donned my poncho and tugged my cap farther down on my noggin. I shoved my review notebook under my sweatshirt. No one shrieked or made a mad rush to escape to the parking lot (at least, not among those of us in the standing-close-to-the-stage crowd). Maybe everyone else was hypnotized by the music or by other drugs of choice. Or maybe, like me, the rest of the audience vowed to stand and listen as long as Gov't Mule kept on playing. And they did.
They next offered us "Slackjaw Jezebel," the dreamy "Far Away" and "Broke Down on the Brazos," which featured a great driving bass line. It was around this juncture in the concert that Haynes looked out at us and asked how we were doing. We cheered. He told us the band would not take its usual intermission and would just keep on going, perhaps pulling out "stuff we haven't done in a while." He was answered with more cheers. Water continued to flow over us. So did the music. The band jammed on "Wine & Blood," "Is It My Body" and "I'm a Ram." We swayed and danced on the slick grass.
It must have been Beatles night. Perhaps Haynes had heard Greene's set from the comfort of his private tour bus, parked behind the stage. Soon Gov't Mule was covering "I'm So Tired" and "The End," complete with the requisite drum solo provided by Matt Abts, performed as his three colleagues walked to the wings to take a brief break. When they returned many minutes later, it didn't take much prodding to sing loudly along with the striking conclusion: "And in the end, the love you take / Is equal to the love you make." Isn't that what it's all about? The extended set ended with "Wishing Well," "Railroad Boy" and "Mule." The performers walked off the stage to additional cheers.
The rain continued to fall. Although the musicians had had a small roof above them, the wind had been swirling around and blowing raindrops into the stage area for the length of the concert. How everyone up there had escaped electrocution, I could not explain. But from my stage-side vantage point, I could also see Haynes in discussion with Greene and a crew member. While we all continued to call for an encore, the soaked roadie came out and taped a soggy sheet of paper to one of the monitors. It must have contained the hastily-scribbled lyrics to the forthcoming song, perhaps posted for the benefit of the younger musician. What would it be? The cheers grew louder.
When Gov't Mule came back, Greene was with them. Without fanfare, he and Haynes began to dabble with a slow song that followed a simple chord progression. It was basic, but it was also distinctive enough that I recognized it at once. Jackie and Warren's fingers were picking out substitute riffs for the original flute and lead guitar introductions to "Can't You See" by the Marshall Tucker Band. When they came around to the verse, there was no doubt about it as Haynes roared, "Gonna take a freight train," with just as much power as the original Carolina voices that had made the song famous. More cheering ensued as we all joined in. There we were, a bunch of drenched Yankees nodding in time and bellowing one of the signature Southern rock ballads of our generation, with words we knew by heart. While Warren and Jackie traded vocal verses and guitar instrumentals, we too crooned about attempted suicide and the desire, at the very least, to ride the rails to Georgia to recuperate from lost love. We sang while veteran musicians jammed along with us, all in the middle of a late summer New England deluge. It was a surreal experience. It would have made a great Impressionist painting.
What was even niftier was when Haynes quietly overlaid another batch of notes over that tune's foundation. Who would have suspected that the chorus of "Hey Jude" might use the same chords as "Can't You See"? How would someone even think to put the two together? But that's what a jam band does, and that's what Warren Haynes is adept at doing. He gets it. Through his intrinsic talent and from his Allman Brothers and Grateful Dead experiences, he understands the dynamics of musical composition and how one melody can turn into quite another. I had seen glimmers of that during the Dead concert (see my Rambles.NET review here) and saw even more of that ability on this night.
The evening came to an end as Nate Dale, the lead guitarist from Greene's band, joined the rest of the group for a Jerry Garcia cover, "That's What Love Will Make You Do." Now all of the talents could take their turns at filling in the blanks. It was a wonderful way to close the concert. All too soon they waved goodbye, and we took to the driveway and hopped around puddles to reach our cozy cars. There was no Woodstock mud for our shoes to pick up along the way, only a lot of Mountain-Park dew.
I had originally hoped to hear some strains from the one Gov't Mule CD I previewed. Wouldn't you know: the band didn't play anything from it! Instead, the guys gave us a great mix, with selections coming from the albums Deja Voodoo, By a Thread, Gov't Mule, Life Before Insanity, Mulennium and Mighty High. The concert turned out to be a musical education for me. It only heightened my respect for Gov't Mule and ultimately for Warren Haynes, who proved once again that he is an intelligent musician and a savvy professional.
If you love good guitar playing; and if you like Southern rock and blues and expanded jam versions of melodies, then you need not know everything about Gov't Mule. Just go and see the band. The music is worth it, believe me -- even if you have to stand in a driving rain to absorb it.
It is months later that I write this reminiscence. I have sifted through the wrinkled pages of my permanently-warped notebook and have verified my washed-out penmanship with the set list posted by a fan on Mulebase.com. Still, I think back to that night with sheer pleasure and a smile on my face. I may not have been familiar with Gov't Mule's catalogue before that evening, but I sure enjoyed learning and hearing more of it. I hope to see the band again.
And today whenever that Marshall Tucker tune comes on the radio, I am magically back at Mountain Park in the rain, singing along with Jackie and Warren, watching and listening to them trade guitar interludes. That's the power of music. And that, to me, is the lingering value of concert attendance. Sometimes the sweetest part of an experience is the vivid memory of it.
by Corinne H. Smith