Gig review: GOV’T MULE – Under The Bridge, London, 4 July 2013

Although their reputation as primary jam band is well merited, Gov’t Mule is much more than that. Their improvisational core takes them across genres and into constantly evolving new areas that gives shows like this its cutting edge.

At the heart of proceedings is their leader, guitarist, vocalist and song-writer Warren Haynes, who is one of the hardest working blues-rock performers of our time. When not exploring a battery of tones and different musical styles, he leads the band with kind of signature voice that marks him out as special. It’s the voice of a lifetime’s experience on the road, which is given coherence by a mix of his lyrics, some restless time changes, contrasting melodic phrasing and soaring solo’s that take over where when the words end.

A Mule show is a roller coaster of emotion, frisson and gut busting aggressive playing with relentless volume. But it all works so well because the road drilled band pushes each other to the limit under the guidance of Haynes’s towering presence.

It’s worth repeating that Warren’s guitar playing is never less than adventurous and exploratory, but always tasteful. Nothing is ever hurried and when the band did unveil one of their new songs ‘Funny Little Tragedy’, the surprise was that it was an up tempo affair in sharp contrast to their usual smouldering style.

The Mule draw on a repertoire of hundreds of songs and since the release of Warren’s solo album ‘Man In Motion’ the band appears to have shifted to a more structured and rootsy feel. That said they opened tonight’s show with typical thunder and bluster on ‘Blind Man In The Dark’.

The combination of stop-start, wah-wah toned angular riffs, brooding organ, and powerhouse drumming, could have been early Beefheart, while Warren’s vocals dominated the uplifting chorus of the hard rocking ‘Brand New Angel’.

A tic-toc rhythm and rumbling bass intro drew cheers from the crowd for ‘Thorazine Shuffle’, as Warren weaved in and out of a subtle groove with some crystal notes before seizing the moment and leading the band into some intricate interplay before dropping back into the groove for keyboard player Danny Louis to solo on electric piano. A new up tempo song ‘Funny Little Tragedy’ rounded off set one with the kind of quirky edge well suited to Elvis Costello who sings it on the album’s bonus disc.

It was this effortless sudden change of emphasis and intensity that also featured in set 2’s ‘Kind Of Bird’. For non devotee’s it’s a complex piece that took in be-bop, fusion, pregnant pauses and a beautiful constructed ascending solo from Warren, which he curiously finished with a riff from The Turtles ‘Happy Together’.

The mellifluous yearning blues of ‘Captured’ with its Floydian feel was effectively a switch from technical brilliance to deep emotion. For any other band this new song would have been a show stopper, but Gov’t Mule followed it with the harder edged ‘Larger Than Life’, the title of which could just as easily refer to Haynes.  A second reggae number of the evening ‘Scared To Live’ featured the poignant line ‘Don’t be scared to live, don’t be scared to give’.

Warren palpably isn’t scared of either.  He lives his music career to the full, sings from the heart and his band achieved such moments of intensity that even the 3 guests – sax player Joe McGlohon  and guitarists Elliott Randall and Reeves Gabrels – plus a celebratory encore ‘Rocking In The Free World’ seemed more of a cathartic release than a natural corollary of such an inspirational set.

Review by Pete Feenstra
Photos by Mark Hughes (MPH Studios 01883 344852)

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