Gov't Mule Marches On: Live in Hampton Beach, NH
Hampton Beach, New Hampshire
October 30th, 2009
Gov't Mule have long been savvy enough to invite like-minded artists on tour with them, ranging from Xavier Rudd to Back Door Slam to Robert Randolph. Few co-bills, however, have been so potent on paper as this 2009 fall jaunt with Jackie Greene. In Hampton Beach, the individual attractions were more successful collaboratively than playing on their own.
Jackie Greene commanded the stage with the Grateful Dead's Phil Lesh and Friends in 2007 and 2008, but took a more understated approach to his opening set in New Hampshire, perhaps too much so. Playing electric lead and rhythm guitar as well as piano and harp on some of his choicest recent material, Greene gave hint of his ample stage presence, but nevertheless sold himself a bit short to an audience ready to party on a Friday that happened to be Cabbage Night (some attendees came already costumed for Halloween).
The Beatles' "Taxman" and the Grateful Dead's "Deal," not surprisingly, got the the most spirited response, but Greene might have played more upbeat songs like his own "Like A Ball and Chain" or just re- sequenced what he played. Rather than start so slowly, with "Don't Let the Devil Take Your Mind" the melancholy "California" appearing at mid-point during his forty-five minutes on stage, he could have let it rock earlier and more often, if only to work the audience into a frenzy.
That's precisely what Californian Greene did when he appeared during Gov't Mule's set to offer harmonica on "32-20 Blues." Never at a loss for confidencesome might call it braggadociothe slight, hirsute young man took advantage of his full-fledged solo (clearly audible, unlike much of his own set, where acoustics suffered from the physical layout of this venue) to go face to face with Mule bassist Jorgen Carlsson. The two of them dug their way into the familiar Bo Diddley beat that morphed, not surprisingly, into Buddy Holly's "Not Fade Away," via the Grateful Dead arrangment. This interval proved at least as telling, if not more so, than the formal Mule encore on which Greene joined the quartet for The Beatles' "Don't Let Me Down" and the Dead's "Sugaree."
The ongoing attraction of Gov't Mule live is their unpredictable nature, much of which has to do with how carefully Warren Haynes, more clearly than ever the leader of the band these days, tailors the setlists to the venue and the audience. October 30th found selections from Mule's first studio album in three years, By A Thread, sprinkled throughout two lengthy sets highlighting the more elemental approach of the new material, at the same time addressing the party-minded, restless crowd.
"Broke Down on the Brazos," for instance, is a sparse rocker, which permitted Haynes and Carlsson to face off in front of drummer Matt Abts, almost to the exclusion of keyboardist/guitarist/vocalist Danny Louis (who forfeited his solos to the latter this particular evening). "Inside Outside Woman Blues" isn't quite a straight blues, given its nod to Hendrix during the second segment, but it is nevertheless without direct precedent in the Mule canon. "Frozen Fear" is likewise unusual for its compact pop-rock structure, but simply represented, in a slightly different form, a less open-ended approach than this band often takes in the live setting.
Teases of the Rolling Stones' "Paint It Black" and The Allman Brothers' "Blue Sky" aside, there were few segues and less collective improvisation than Gov't Mule often offers. Haynes had accurately discerned the attendees' limited attention span and adjusted accordingly. Heavy riffing predominated, in the form of "Brand New Angel"; and, as the first set closed, Jackie Greene came on stage with whole band, for a genuinely crowd-pleasing "That's What Love Will Make You Do."
Throughout the evening, the audience exhibited as much surprise as appreciation for Jorgen Carlsson's presence as an increasingly prominent member of The Mule. One year to the day since his debut on stage with the group, the comparatively youthful bassist's instrument(s) resounded throughout the Ballroom during solos like the one he took on Free's "Mr. Big." There's an edge in his playing increasingly inviting comparisons with original Mule member Allen Woody's, but Jorgen Carlsson is definitely his own man, as his inscrutable absorption in his playing belies its force.
Familiar material from the Gov't Mule catalog, like "No Need to Suffer," sounded simultaneously fresh and sharp after years of playing because of the new chemistry developing in this lineup. Gov't Mule has had to reinvent itself regularly during the course of its existence, first because of the death of Woody in 2001, then more recently with the departure of his successor Andy Hess. Consider it a tribute to the group that it's retained its essential character and, late in the New England autumn, demonstrated how much greater is The Mule than the sum of its history.