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Mighty Mighty

Gov't Mule's blues power endures

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As the name implies, Gov't Mule is a band that reliably keeps on trudging, perhaps even stubbornly so. Packing their gritty, southern power rock, Gov't Mule comes to the Neighborhood Theatre on Wednesday, Nov. 15.

Formed by then-Allman Brothers band members Warren Haynes (guitar) and Allen Woody (bass) in 1995 as a side-project for touring downtime, Gov't Mule soon became a full-time enterprise in 1997 with the help of former Dickey Betts drummer Matt Abts. Between 1995 and 1997, Gov't Mule released five albums -- many to great critical praise, as the band was celebrated for bringing back the extended rock-based jamming of classic rock power trios such as Traffic, the Jimi Hendrix Experience and Blind Faith. But intermingled with the Mule's improvisational influences were the crunch of Mississippi blues and a background in the music of the South.

The prolific output of Gov't Mule in the late 1990s is astounding considering the demand for Warren Haynes, who has proven himself to be something of a level-16 Dungeon Master of the guitar world. Not only was Haynes touring with Gov't Mule during this time period but he resumed playing with the Allman Brothers Band, and he became an integral part of Phil and Friends, the ever-evolving band of former Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh. (I have personally seen him play a show at which Gov't Mule opened while Phil and Friends and the Allman Brothers headlined--Haynes was onstage the entire time, playing a very heavy Les Paul guitar furiously, exhibiting a stubbornness that was indeed mule-like.)

Unfortunately, the Mule's fifth album, which was meant as its launch into the musical mainstream, proved its name only too prophetic: Life Before Insanity (Zomba Records, 2000) was released shortly before the death of Allen Woody. The death of any musician is a terrible blow to a band, but this seemed especially so for Haynes and Gov't Mule as it was the shared admiration for the variety of explosive interplay between Haynes and Woody that led to the birth of Gov't Mule.

While Haynes debated whether to continue with Gov't Mule, he and Abts took care of their own by putting together a tribute show called "One for Woody" in order to raise money for the education of Woody's daughter. The following year, the duo recorded a tribute to their former bassist using a revolving door of bassists and keyboardists to fill out the band.

Those recording sessions were filmed by Phish bassist and filmmaker Mike Gordon, and later edited into the very excellent documentary, Rising Low (ATO Records, 2002). Fans of Allen Woody, Gov't Mule and bass aficionados should make every attempt to watch this film as it has some of the most intelligent discussion from bassists about their approach to their instrument and the process of playing music.

The same sessions that produced Rising Low also yielded a set of albums: The Deep End, vol. 1 (ATO Records, 2001) and a second volume a year later. These recordings were also the catalyst that led to the new lineup of Gov't Mule which is currently touring in support of their August release, High & Mighty (Red Ink Records).

High & Mighty promises to bring Gov't Mule to the masses in the way that Life Before Insanity should have done. In bringing former Black Crowes bassist Andy Hess into the fold along with keyboardist and multi-instrumentalist Danny Louis, Haynes has taken his signature rollicking, dirty south blues to a new level. The connection between the musicians as they work collaboratively around the consistently strong songs of Haynes (a talent which is often overlooked by many because his guitar playing is so singular and dynamic) is what comes through most strongly on the new record. While most of the songs are radio-friendly (only the melodic and beautiful "Endless Parade" exceeds any standards of radio play-length), they still retain the freedom of an improvisational unit.

That fine balance between the indulgence of jamming and the discipline of defined songwriting will be on full display when Haynes and co. roll into Charlotte under the auspices of Gov't Mule. Also, while Haynes is quite comfortable strutting his stuff at bigger venues, the intimacy of the Neighborhood Theatre offers the chance to see one of the era's great guitarists in a small setting at the height of his powers, and to witness the subtle exchanges amongst musicians tightly locked into one another's grooves.

Gov't Mule plays the Neighborhood Theatre; Donavon Frankenreiter opens; doors 7 p.m., show at 8 p.m.; $29; visit www.neighborhoodtheatre.com for more info.

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