Guitarist-singer Warren Haynes opens up about Gov’t Mule, the Allman Brothers Band, songwriting, influences, loss and much more in an exclusive, all-encompassing interview with veteran journalist Geoffrey Himes.
There’s a reason that the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers Band still tower over the jam-band scene decades after their final studio albums. And it’s not because they had vastly superior musicians. Yes, Jerry Garcia and Duane Allman have never quite been matched as improvising rock guitarists, but every successful jam-band boasts at least one knockout soloist. No, the difference is songs.
Garcia, Robert Hunter, Bob Weir, Gregg Allman and Dickey Betts could all write great songs, compositions you’d remember the day after — and the year after too. So many of the second-generation and third-generation jam bands play music rather than songs. It’s usually skillful, inventive music, but it’s like wallpaper that wraps around you in an undifferentiated pattern. What’s missing are songs — particular pictures with definite frames on the wall.
Warren Haynes can write songs like that. And that’s what enables his band Gov’t Mule to stand out in the crowded jam-band scene. And that’s what makes the concert film “Bring on the Music: Live at the Capitol Theatre” so rewarding. Culled from back-to-back shows in Port Chester, N.Y., in April 2018, each of the 22 songs has its own character, its own melodic hook in the chorus, its own story in the lyrics, its own beginning, middle and end.
There are two reasons for this. For one, Haynes is the only musician to serve time in both the Allman Brothers and the post-Garcia version of the Grateful Dead. For another, he follows the example of those bands in digging deep into pre-Elvis history to find mountain ballads and cottonfield blues to sing. These include “Railroad Boy,” a 1926 Buell Kazee recording derived from 17th century British ballads and “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground,” a 1927 Blind Willie Johnson recording derived from 19th century hymns.
Beyond the weight of history these songs bring to Haynes’ music, they also raise the stakes by meditating on violence and death. Haynes takes advantage of this on “Traveling Tune,” the movie’s opening number. “Here’s one for the fallen ones,” Haynes sings over his own folk-rock guitar figure, “that didn’t make it through this life’s challenges and pressures.” The song segues into “Railroad Boy,” but the band returns to “Traveling Tune” as the final song before the encore. In one of the black-and-white, dressing-room interviews that punctuate the Danny Clinch-directed picture, Haynes reveals that he wrote it after the death of his mentor Gregg Allman in 2017.
‘How do you cope? How do you keep going? Music is the path.’
“The day Gregg died,” Haynes recounts, “everyone was like, ‘Are you going to cancel? Are you going to play?’ And I thought about all the stories in the Allman Brothers Band about when Duane died, and the way they got through it was by playing music. Through the years, you hear all these bands who lose members. How do you cope? How do you keep going? Music is the path. So ‘Traveling Tune’ is a very personal song.”
It’s a song from Gov’t Mule’s 2017 album, “Revolution Come...Revolution Go,” which has a cover image of a brightly painted wooden mule, a child’s toy. Two such mules, now life-sized, flank the drum riser as the light show in the 2018 concert splashes against the walls of the 1926 theater. Six other songs from the album (including “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground,” and “Dreams & Songs”) are also featured.
Matt Abts, co-founder of the band in 1994, is still behind the drums. Danny Louis, the band’s first-ever keyboardist (and first-ever trombonist), expanded the trio to a quartet when Gov’t Mule reactivated in 2002. Jorgen Carlsson has been on bass since 2008, succeeding Andy Hess and the late Allen Woody, who co-founded the band in 1994.
They’re all impressive players, but the show peaks when they slow down to drift into the reverie of “Dreams & Songs.” The lyrics invite us to stare out Haynes’ backyard window at what he left behind in his childhood, and the seductive motifs suggest what we might find there. It’s a song that will stay with you long after the solos fade.
Geoffrey Himes wrote about pop music on a weekly basis in the Washington Post from 1977 to 2019 and has served as a senior editor at No Depression and Paste magazines. He has also written about pop music, jazz, theater, film, art and books for Rolling Stone, Oxford American, The New York Times, Smithsonian, National Public Radio, DownBeat and other outlets. He has been honored for Music Feature Writing by the Deems Taylor/ASCAP Awards (2003, 2005, 2014 and 2016), the New Orleans Press Awards, the Abell Foundation Awards and the Music Journalism Awards. His book on Bruce Springsteen, “Born in the U.S.A.,” was published by Continuum Books in 2005. He’s currently working on a book for the Country Music Hall of Fame.