The thing about jam bands – the really good ones, anyway – is that they have a rock-solid foundation of brilliant musicianship to use as a launchpad for improvisation. You can’t fly unless you’re already a proficient runner.
Take Gov’t Mule, playing Wednesday, May 1 at Jannus Live in downtown St. Petersburg. Founding guitarist Warren Haynes is a master musician who loves, and plays, all kinds of music. Mule is a essentially a hard-rocking, blues-infused jam band, with Haynes’ distinctive, searing slide guitar out front.
Jam band musicians have a unique telepathy. They’ll start a song, and eventually they’ll finish it – it’s the improvised section in the middle, the journey from Point A to Point B, that changes every time they play.
“Our fans are there to be part of that journey,” Haynes tells the Catalyst. “It’s hard to know whether an individual fan has any idea what parts are rehearsed and what parts are improvised, but they’re taking that ride with you – and they want to see something that’s never happened before, and that’s never gonna happen again. And that kind of gives you a security blanket to go further than you would be able to go in an empty room.”
The North Carolinian’s resume is one of the most distinguished in rock ‘n’ roll. He joined the Allman Brothers Band in 1989, and played with them, with a few short periods away, until the band was officially dissolved in 2014.
With Haynes and young Derek Trucks sharing lead guitar duties, echoing the salad days of Duane Allman and Dickey Betts, the veteran band enjoyed a late-period renaissance of respect and admiration.
He’s also been a sometime member of The Dead, alongside the surviving members of the Grateful Dead, and was a charter member of Phil Lesh & Friends, a Dead offshoot.
A proficient songwriter as well as a multi-instrumentalist, he’s written and recorded several albums as a solo artist and with the Warren Haynes Band.
Gov’t Mule has performed entire shows consisting of the music of Pink Floyd, and Led Zeppelin.
“That’s one of my favorite things about what I do, being able to bounce around and do a lot of different stuff,” Haynes says. “I love so many different types of music, it’s a real pleasure having the opportunity to play with so many different people, and expressing myself in different ways. And I think it keeps me from kinda getting burned out on what I do. If I did the same thing all the time, it would probably be a whole different world.”
Mule began in 1994, with bassist Alan Woody and drummer Matt Abts. “We never expected, when we first started out, even to make a second record,” Hayes admits. “We were a side project of the Allman Brothers when we first started out – it felt good, we kept doing it, and it kinda turned into its own thing.
“I don’t think anybody ever expected it to go 25 years, but once we became a real band we just took it one step at a time, and here we are.”
Although Woody passed away in 2000, Abts is still Gov’t Mule’s drummer. Along with Abts and Haynes, the current lineup includes Danny Louis (keyboards, guitar, and backing vocals) and Jorgen Carlsson (bass).
Not long before Gregg Allman’s death in 2017, Haynes and Derek Trucks traveled to his home outside Savannah for a final visit. Allman, and his guests, knew the end was near. “ I could tell that it meant a lot to him as well,” Haynes says somberly. “We were sharing stories, through the years and stuff, and there were moments when he was laughing and remembering all the people that we cherish.”
So many lost along a long, long road. Allman Brothers drummer Butch Trucks, Derek’s uncle, had taken his own life a few month earlier.
Sitting with Gregg was bittersweet. “In the early days after I joined the Allman Brothers Band, it was me and him, and Alan Woody, sharing a bus together,” Haynes recalls. “And we had fun – we hung out and made each other laugh, and listened to music. It was a fun hang. That’s a big part of it, too – keeping it fun and making everybody laugh, and rolling down the highway, putting the miles behind you.”
The life of a touring musician is never easy, and rarely uncomplicated. “You have to be prepared for what the road is gonna be,” says Haynes. “It’s not meant for everybody. It does take a certain kind of personality to be comfortable and adapt to that sort of thing.
“And playing music, a lot of it is chemistry – and some of that chemistry is getting along with people, and fitting into the situation. It’s not all just musical chemistry, some of it’s personal chemistry.”
True to his word, Haynes has assembled a disparate and unpredictable calendar for the rest of 2019. After the current Gov’t Mule tour ends, he’ll play a solo acoustic show on Long Island, then travel to the Pennsylvania Peach Fest for a date with Phil Lesh & Friends.
He’s hoping to issue a recording of “Warren Haynes’ Symphonic Journey,” last month’s performance with the Asheville, N.C. Symphony.
For those two nights, Haynes’ band included jam stalwarts Oteil Burbridge, Jeff Sipe, John Medeski and Greg Osby. They covered a range of material from Haynes’ long career – from the Allmans to Mule to the Dead and beyond.
“I just picked songs that I thought a symphony would elevate, you know?” he says. “Not every rock song is going to work with an orchestra, so you try to pick the ones that do. And it was a great experience. I was very happy with it.”
Orchestra musicians are reading a written score. They cannot, of course, jam.
Not a problem, explains Haynes. “I’m not following the score, but you have to always be aware that the symphony can’t adapt to you. We have these moments where the band is playing, the symphony lays out and we’re completely improvising. And then the symphony will come back in on cue.
“It requires a little more focus and thought than the average rock ‘n’ roll show, because you can’t just let go like we’re used to. But it’s a beautiful challenge.”