Entertainment Music Meet Gov’t Mule, the jam band that conquered the...

Meet Gov’t Mule, the jam band that conquered the world

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Reliably late to the party, my first taste of Haynes’s remarkable musicality came when listening to an Allman Brothers concert while watching a crowd of 50,000 people descend on the Citi Field baseball stadium, in New York City, for an appearance by (the Grateful Dead-adjacent) Dead & Company this past June. At once, I was struck by how perfectly his searing lead guitar provided a private soundtrack to the sight of a tie-dye army many of whom, whether young or old, were inhaling joints, sucking back balloons of nitrous oxide, or else purchasing LSD and magic mushrooms from entrepreneurial Deadheads patrolling the parking lots. Certainly, it was the wildest scene I’ve witnessed in a long time. In fact, I would go so far as to describe it as proof that the People’s Republic of Rock’n’Roll lives on.

In London, things are a good deal more sedate. Upstairs in the first floor bar, fellas of a certain age form an orderly queue amid an atmosphere that might at least in part be informed by the Palladium’s ostentatiously ornate interior. Certainly, it’s difficult to cut loose in a venue staffed by ushers dressed in waistcoats and post-box formal wear. Suitably cowed, during moments in which Warren Haynes leads Gov’t Mule into the kind of song that sounds as if it should be played by a band standing behind chicken-wire, the audience remain seated.

“I think the European audiences in general are a little more subdued,” he tells me. “I came over [to the UK] with the Allman Brothers for the first time in ’91 and it was intimidating because we were wondering whether or not people liked us. But we came to realise that the European crowds were listening a little bit more and partying a little less. That’s my assessment of it anyway. They’re more like a jazz audience where people are hanging on every note and saving their applause for later. In the States, a lot of time people are applauding during the songs, which is not necessary.”

In truth, Gov’t Mule are one of the few bands of their kind who even knowof a difference between here and there. Regardless of popularity, under normal circumstances the likelihood of seeing a jam band onstage in Europe is about the same as catching Chas & Dave on tour in the United States. Despite playing 212 concerts in eight years, Dead & Company, who bowed out in July with three concerts in front of more than 150,000 people at Oracle Park in San Francisco, declined to travel further east than Boston. The comparably popular Phish – who in April will become the second group after U2 to take up residency at the Sphere, in Las Vegas – last came to London 26 yearsago.

Despite his paucity of first-hand action, however, all it took for me to tumble headfirst down an apparently bottomless improvisational rabbit-hole was a monthly subscription to the concert streaming site Nugs.net. From this simple transaction, an entire subculture of strange and boundless music has sashayed into view. Not every group on the roster is a jam band – the catalogue contains an entire library of Springsteen concerts, for one thing – but those that are are easy to spot. If an opening song lasts longer than an episode of Coronation Street, you’re in business.

The names keep coming – all of them unknown to me, most of them weird. Scores of gigs by Widespread Panic, Dark Star Orchestra, Voodoo Dead, Umphrey’s McGee, The String Cheese Incident, Railroad Earth, Pigeons Playing Ping Pong, and dozens of others. It’s like discovering a hidden continent in a world of music that I thought I knew at least reasonably well. Of this eccentric parade, the Connecticut quintet Goose are my current favourites; in particular, I recommend the 21-minute version of the song Hot Tea that opens the first of two sets at this year’s Cascade Equinox Festival, in Redmond, Oregon, on September 24. Like I said, I’ve got it bad.

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For their part, Gov’t Mule conform to the characteristics of their scene by spending a startling amount of time on the road. “I always tell people that we’re getting paid for the travelling and the inconvenience and the crappy food and the shitty hotel rooms, [and that] the payoff is walking onstage and doing what you love to do,” Haynes explains. “I make a living doing what I love, which is not what most people get to do.” Even here, there are differences from the norms of conventional rock’n’roll. For one thing, a jam band will almost never play the same set twice.

And so it is that ticketholders at the Palladium who may have been hoping for an encore of Pink Floyd’s Comfortably Numb are left disappointed in a heart-pleasing way. “Just to be serious for a moment,” announces Warren Haynes, “but our friend Bernie Marsden passed away recently”. Long accustomed to seeing the erstwhile Whitesnake guitarist – rightly regarded as one of the finest English-born blues players of his generation – whenever they visited Europe, the 72-year old’s passing, in August of this year, is an absence keenly felt. By way of goodbye, Gov’t Mule close their set with a luxurious and patient version of Ain’t No Love In The Heart Of The City.

“Bernie and I were friends for a long time,” Haynes explains. “He’s actually one of the first musicians I met when the Allman Brothers came to London… We became friends and stayed in touch, and when Gov’t Mule came not only to the UK but to Europe in general, sometimes Bernie would show up and we’d invite him to get on the bus for a few days. And he would literally ride with us, sometimes for three or four days at a time. So we shared a lot of late-night stories. I loved him dearly. He was a beautiful human being and an incredible musician.”

Asked if Bernie Marsden ever joined Gov’t Mule onstage for the occasional jam, Warren Haynes laughs before replying, “Oh yeah, many times”.


Gov’t Mule’s latest album, Peace… Like A River, is available now on Fantasy Records

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