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Stuck in a Jam

Gov't Mule's Haynes seeks Wider vistas beyond self-indulgent noodling

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Ah, jam bands. It's a judgment call which haze is thicker, that caused by the stomach-curdling blend of b.o. and patchouli or the fragrant clouds of premium cannabis sativa that envelop a jam band audience like Los Angeles smog. Add to it the spectacle of rhythm-less dancing and twirling resembling a slow-motion epileptic fit on a calliope, and it's easy to see why some might turn their nose up at this form of music (if only to protect themselves from the odor). I'm not sure which drugs are the ones that make this frequently repetitive, self-indulgent, blues-based but soul-less noodling palatable, let alone enjoyable for so many people, but they need to provide the wonder drugs with the ticket, because I can't get the chemistry right. The harder I try, the more difficult it is to discern where one song ends and the other one begins, which, of course, epitomizes the consistency of this mush — ideal for a feeding tube except for the lack of nutrients. And don't get me started about Birkenstocks and the rest of hippie "fashion." (Wipe that smirk off your face, indie rockers. How hard is it coordinating different shades of black with your leather bomber jacket?)

Like I said, it's easy to dismiss jam bands, but it's wrong. Clothing and hairstyles are no more than cultural signifiers, a kind of visual shorthand for this adrenalized culture. Ad hoc characterizations like punk, yuppie, hippie or hip-hopper, are no better at capturing the personality of any given individual than genre is a band's sound. It can provide a broad outline — which in the case of many shallow bands and individuals may be unerring — but it's inadequate to describe the better acts, almost by definition.

Which is a roundabout way to suggest that Warren Haynes, leader of Gov't Mule, has transcended his influences and deserves to be heard as a musician, not general of the hippie jam band legions. The former Asheville native would certainly be one of their first remaining choices to lead that great, unwashed nation (after Trey Anastacio, of course). He's already played with two of the form's signature bands, The Grateful Dead and The Allman Brothers, filling the shoes of the deceased Duane Allman and Jerry Garcia admirably. His gruff baritone and slide guitar playing have established him as an heir to a musical legacy that's all but disappeared.

"You won't hear roots-based rock music on the radio anymore," Haynes laments on tour in Milan, Italy. "Everyone on the radio is playing that commercial pop sound and stuff influenced by music of the last few years."

Haynes grew up on the classic rock of the 60s and 70s, drawing inspiration from artists such as Eric Clapton, Robin Trower and Jimi Hendrix. But unlike many in his listening audience, his tastes are remarkably broad. Gov't Mule brought 1998 Mercury Prize winner Gomez on tour with them a few years back, and they've been known to cover a Radiohead tune. For his part, Haynes believes continuing to explore new music is essential to the life of an artist.

"I think it's important to listen to as many different types of music as you can, and figure out what's good and bad about them. And by that I mean good and bad for yourself. No two people hear the same thing or feel the same way about a piece of music. That's part of the beauty of it. But the more you expose yourself, the better versed you're going to be, and you'll be a better musician," Haynes says. "It comes to you in different ways. It may not be something you'd do, but you can take different things from it."

Gov't Mule certainly isn't going to break into a Pixies tune anytime soon. Their patois is burgeoning, groove-heavy blues riffs, extending from the power combo roar of acts such as the Yardbirds and Mountain to ZZ Top-ish boogie to rootsy, expansive psychedelic rock excursions owing debts to both the Dead and Neil Young. (They do a notable version of "Cortez the Killer.") But perhaps what distinguishes Haynes from many of his improvisational rock peers is his recognition of the need for a balance between the jamming and the dictates of the song.

"What's made the music of bands like the Allman Brothers and Grateful Dead endure is the quality of the material, not just the playing. Those bands wrote great songs," Haynes notes. "A lot of the new 'jam bands' I hear coming up, don't put enough emphasis on the songs. They think they can get by on their performance ability. But that's nothing without good songs. It's a balance of both."

Gov't Mule began ten years ago as a side project from the Allman Brothers, with the band's bassist Allen Woody and drummer Matt Abst. They released four albums (two of them live releases) before Woody's death in 2000. For several years the band continued, putting out albums and performing with a rotating cast of guest bassists, before Haynes settled on a new 4-piece lineup for 2004's Deja Voodoo.

"There's a lot of things you can't do as a trio," Haynes explained. "It's hard to replace a band member, particularly in a three-piece because it requires so much communication, which builds with time...I decided trying to recreate that would be futile and it'd be better to pursue something that was equally cool in a different way."

It's a lesson he'd learned in his own role, replacing departed legends.

"You don't want to clone that person. You want somebody who will bring something different, a new energy," Haynes says. "As a musician, you want to keep exploring. It's boring to stay in one place."

He might as well have written an epitaph for lousy jam bands — you can see them moving but they aren't going anywhere (except deeper into their collective navel). But it's unfair to paint the entire scene with the same brush, lest you're the type who needs to believe all rappers are gangstas, every republican a god-fearing patriot, that villians always blink their eyes or that children are the only ones who blush. Haynes may be guilty by association, but he's no coattail rider. Haynes is a classic rock guitarist in the fullest sense of the term (and decent singer/songwriter), and shouldn't be blamed (or flamed) for the methane produced by less-inspired peers.

Gov't Mule plays the Grady Cole Center Thursday; the John Popper Project w/DJ Logic headlines.

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