For some odd reason, it took me until Tuesday night at the Wiltern Theater in Los Angeles to figure out what, exactly, the term “guitar music” means. And I have Gov’t Mule, led by the inimitable Warren Haynes, to thank for that revelation.
I could go on and on about how Haynes, bassist Jorgen Carlsson, keyboardist Danny Louis and drummer Matt Abst ripped through a slew of Mule standards old and new in their first set, from “Railroad Boy” and “Thorazine Shuffle” to “Unring the Bell” and “Revolution Come…Revolution Go,” off their latest album of the same name. I could wax poetic about the Steely Dan covers Mule slayed with the help of guitarist Jimmy Vivino, the leader of Conan O’Brien’s house band; keyboardist/vocalist Jeff Young, who’s played with Steely Dan and Jackson Browne; saxophonist Scott Paige, who’s toured with Pink Floyd, Supertramp and Toto; and Moonalice’s John Molo, who took his turns on drums behind Abst. Heck, I could expound upon the virtues of Duane Betts, son of the legendary Dickey Betts, joining Haynes and company on stage for a run of Allman Brothers Band classics to close out the second set and carry into the encore.
But here, in this “a-ha” moment as in guitar music at large, the devil isn’t so much in the details as in what those details did (and do) for the main attraction.
Haynes is nothing less than a master axe man, with the requisite beyond-reproach bona fides. The Ashville, North Carolina native has jammed with the Allman Brothers Band and the Grateful Dead more than just about anyone who isn’t an original member of either group, and not by accident. The dude manipulates his chosen instrument like another limb—a loud, emotional and expressive limb. His guitar work is at once clean, crisp, soulful and selective, with a rhythm and tone all its own. He’s versatile enough on the neck to hop from the Delta blues of Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground” to the psychedelia of the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood,” to Southern rock of the Allman Brothers’ “Whipping Post.”
In guitar music, though, the person on the most important implement is only as good as the surrounding melodies and accompaniments. The songs themselves matter insofar as they set the stage for someone of Haynes’ talents to improvise with, say, a Gibson Les Paul ‘58—the same guitar with which Duane Allman shook the music world before his untimely death in 1971.
In that way, Haynes is like a great painter: forever an expert with his brush, the quality and character of whose work depends on the palette at his disposal. Fortunately for the enthusiastic crowd at the Wiltern, Mule’s setlist and the collection of incomparable musicians who partook in the festivities provided Haynes with all the notes and themes he needed to paint yet another live masterpiece.
To be sure, Haynes wasn’t the only one who got to wail the night away. Louis showed off his skills on the keys throughout the evening. Paige went H.A.M. on his sax during Mule’s rendition of Steely Dan’s “Don’t Take Me Alive” to close out the opening set. Vivino and Betts took the tunes out for a walk—nay, a joyful jog, or at least a stylish stroll—during their stints in the spotlight.
In truth, the central tenets of guitar music aren’t limited strictly to guitars. The genre (if it can be called that) is about showcasing individual talent, about providing platforms for prodigies across the sonic spectrum.
Haynes on guitar is just one such example, but he’s a damn fine one at that. He’s certainly worthy of the awesome journey that’s led him to this point with Mule, and figures to remain a formidable force on the front lines of guitar music, or whatever you want to call it, for as long as he sees fit to keep strumming.
Setlist: Gov’t Mule | Wiltern Theatre | Los Angeles, CA | 9/26/17
I: Railroad Boy, Thorazine Shuffle, Beautifully Broken, Traveling Tune, Revolution Come, Revolution Go, Unring The Bell, Endless Parade, Dirty Work (with Jimmy Vivino, Jeff Young & Scott Paige), Won 4 Walter Jam (with Jimmy Vivino, Jeff Young, Scott Paige & John Molo; without Matt Abts) > Don’t Take Me Alive (with Jimmy Vivino, Jeff Young, Scott Paige & John Molo; without Matt Abts)
II: Maggot Brain (with Eric McFadden), Stone Cold Rage, Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground, Trane > Eternity’s Breath > St. Stephen Jam, Blue Sky (with Duane Betts), Whipping Post (with Duane Betts)
E: Melissa > Mountain Jam > Melissa (with Jimmy Vivino & Duane Betts)
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