Blazing a new trail


September 28, 2001


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 priority.

"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 like this."