Blazing a new trail
September 28, 2001
BY JIM DeROGATIS POP MUSIC CRITIC
When this column last checked in with Gov't Mule, the hard-rocking trio
was on top of the world. It had released its strongest studio album to date,
"Life Before Insanity," and built a devoted following across the country for
its inspired live performances.
Then, a year ago in August, bassist Allen Woody was found dead at the age
of 44 in a hotel room in Queens, the victim of a heart attack.
At first, singer, songwriter, and guitarist Warren Haynes and powerhouse
drummer Matt Abts were uncertain about whether to continue. Like Cream,
another famous "jam band" that was much more their model than the Grateful
Dead and its ilk, the group was based on the unique chemistry between its
members, especially Haynes and Woody, who had forged their musical
relationship as members of the Allman Brothers Band.
Then the calls and letters started coming in from other rock groups that
had lost a member but pressed on. Fellow travelers such as Leslie West of
Mountain, Phil Lesh of the Dead, Dave Grohl of Nirvana and the Foo Fighters,
James Hetfield of Metallica, and John Popper of Blues Traveler all reached
out to say, "You can do it. "
"A lot of friends and people in the business kind of made us look at it
from a different angle, which was, 'Hey, you have to keep the music alive.
This is Woody's legacy,' " Haynes says. "That made us rethink our
whole stance on it."
And so Gov't Mule returned to the recording studio. But rather than
singling out one bassist to fill Woody's shoes, it turned to some of the
players who had been his inspiration. Legends one and all, they each
performed on one track, mostly new Haynes originals, resulting in not one
but two new albums: "The Deep End Vol. I," which will be released on Oct. 9,
and "The Deep End Vol. II," which will follow next spring. (Both are being
issued under the band's new deal with ATO, the independent label formed by
Dave Matthews and his manager, which scored a platinum hit last year with
its very first release, David Gray's "White Ladder.")
Among the stellar names holding down the bottom end on "Vol. I" are Jack
Bruce of Cream, Larry Graham of Sly and the Family Stone, John Entwistle of
the Who, Bootsy Collins of Parliament-Funkadelic, Mike Watt of the
Minutemen, Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Mike Gordon of Phish, Roger
Glover of Deep Purple, and Stefan Lessard of the Dave Matthews Band.
According to Haynes, all of them played through Woody's giant SVT bass
cabinet--as much to bring a bit of his spirit into the sessions as to spare
themselves from hauling their own gear.
"It was an amazing process," Haynes says. "Matt and I were just
overwhelmed that something as negative as Woody passing could turn into
something so positive.
"It started out as us approaching Woody's influences, and then it turned
into, 'Well, why not include some contemporaries, like Les Claypool?' I
think we really expected more people to say no; we thought it was going to
be a single CD. But everybody we asked was interested, and then they would
recommend other people, and the next thing you know, there's too much to fit
on one CD."
Most of the musicians Haynes had never met before, though many had been
heroes since he was a teenager.
"We'd meet 'em one day, kind of get to know each other and rehearse,
arrange some material and record, and then the next day wave goodbye," he
says. "But a lot of lifelong relationships were forged."
What's more, some magical moments were captured on tape. At its best,
Gov't Mule merges the fluid, free-flowing experimentalism that jam fans love
with the unrelenting, hard-hitting power craved by the grungiest of rockers.
Players such as Chris Squire of Yes, Tony Levin of King Crimson, Jack
Cassidy of Hot Tuna, and Me'Shell Ndegeocello (all of whom appear on "Vol.
II") fell right into the groove.
"We didn't want it to be a tribute record with a bunch of pre-existing
Gov't Mule songs redone," Haynes says. "And we didn't want it to be one of
those all-star records where, 'So-and-so's got three hours, let's play
"Johnny B. Goode." ' We wanted it to be similar to what the next Gov't Mule
record would have been, though in some ways it went a little further.
"These are people who influenced us, and those influences come out in our
music. But maybe we went a little bit more toward that direction under the
circumstances, like maybe with the Bootsy Collins track or the Phil Lesh
track. The Bootsy track with [keyboardist] Bernie [Worrell], that's half
Funkadelic and half Gov't Mule, so maybe it's a little more Funkadelic than
we would have ever gotten. And maybe the Phil Lesh track with [mandolinist]
David Grisman is a little more Appalachian than we'd have gotten, but it
just seemed appropriate. When people of this magnitude come into the fold,
you might as well let it go where it will."
These days, Haynes is also back in the Allmans' fold, replacing guitarist
Dickey Betts, who was fired last year amid considerable controversy,
allegedly for sub-par playing. Fans say the young guitarist has once again
revitalized the veteran Southern rockers, but Gov't Mule clearly remains his
"We really want to keep this whole thing moving, and it seems in most
ways to be doing better than ever, in spite of Woody passing," Haynes says.
"This year is probably the busiest year of my life. There's not a lot of
room for a personal life, and that's the down side. But the music side is
really going well, considering all the circumstances. I kind of look at it
like, musicians have a limited window of opportunity in which they can make
their statement. I hope to be like John Lee Hooker, playing when I'm 83. But
the tides change, and you never know when the kind of music that you love
may go out of vogue."
So, Haynes is back on the road. Gov't Mule has become a quartet, with
Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton veteran Chuck Leavell on keyboards, and
Oteil Burbridge of the Allmans and Dave Schools of Widespread Panic filling
alternate dates on bass. In time, the group may choose another permanent
bassist, Haynes says.
But not yet. Like every thinking, feeling artist in America, Haynes has
mixed feelings about playing music after the events of Sept. 11.
"I was in New York when it happened, and my wife and I watched everything
go down from our window," he says. "It was really surreal--the heaviest
thing I've ever seen."
But he decided to continue performing. Because flights were canceled, he
drove the 37 hours to Denver for the first show of the tour, and it was one
of the best he's ever played.
"The audience was great, with people really bonding together," Haynes
says. "Music can be a very healing thing in its own way. So many people are
canceling their tours, but people need to go see some good music at a time