Religious or not, Sunday is the day of repose. Most music fans have their cubicle-vision locked into the Monday-through-Friday, while others are burnt from Friday's and Saturday's two-ended candle burning. That's why Sabbath shows are often filled with die-hards, frothing fanatics giving the finger to sleep because their band is in town for a limited time only.
Even the 4th & B bartenders looked narcoleptic at Gov't Mule's show on April 18. But, as billed, the Southern rockers brought ample energy for the whole house. Preaching to the faithful congregation, the Mule tore through two soulful sets of patented psych-blues.
At this point, singer-guitarist Warren Haynes has only his own reputation to live up to, known as the "hardest working man" in the jam band community for his work with The Allman Brothers, Phil Lesh & Friends and, most recently, The Grateful Dead. With his whiskey-soaked vocals, Haynes woke the crowd with an a capella version of Son House's "Grinnin' in Your Face." He seemed to control the crowd, altering the room's energy level with the volume of his voice.
Segueing to "Thorazine Shuffle," keyboardist Danny Louis, drummer Matt Abts and new bassist Andy Hess settled into a rock groove that played like John Kerry, picking up speed as the campaign went on.
The show's early highlights included a cover of Free's "Mr. Big" and the Mule's own "Devil Likes it Slow." The band ended their first set (jam fans, like women, like their experience in multiples) with a scorching version of "Blind Man in the Dark." The once subdued crowd had found a rabid energy.
After a brief intermission, the Mule returned with "Wandering Child" off their third studio album. Then they executed the gem of any live show-the out-of-character surprise-covering Radiohead's "Creep." Haynes' gravelly baritone supplanted Thom Yorke's plaintive wail with an old blues wisdom, transforming the song from a self-loathing treatise into a funeral lament for those on the edge of a deep emotional chasm.
Sensing the momentum of their audience, the Mule brought out blues harpist Hook Herrera for an extended jam of Robert Johnson's "If I Had Possession over Judgment Day." The ensemble tore the song to shreds for a solid 14 minutes, with Haynes and his guest trading solos. Haynes evoked Coltrane' sax, letting his leads scream into the high ceilings of the bank-turned-concert hall, as Hess and Abts imitated thunder.
Whether bad idea or rest for the other members, drummer Matt Abts went hair metal and broke into a drum solo. While his skills are top notch, the workout stalled the show. Even worse, a meandering keyboard run by Danny Louis followed, going nowhere besides the bad side of a Medeski Martin & Wood groove.
Luckily, their jam glands receded within 10 minutes, enough time for fans to get a beer and heed nature's call. Once Haynes and Hess reappeared, the band regained groove and tore up a cover of Van Morrison's "Into the Mystic."
The end of the second set was signaled with the opening riffs of "Soulshine," a number Haynes has recorded with both the Allmans and the Mule. The tune serves as the same feel-good unification ritual as Pearl Jam's "Yellow Ledbetter," the band and crowd all smiles, each recognizing the smooth transition to night's end.
Yet even with Sunday threatening to Hyde into Monday, the crowd's deafening roar brought the band and Herrerra back out for a run-through of Elmore James' "It Hurts Me Too," and Robert Johnson's "Come on in My Kitchen," making their ultimate exit with Junior Wells' "Yonder Wall."
Detractors often complain that jam bands spend too much time jamming and not enough refining their songwriting and structure. Save for short, pointless solos, Gov't Mule brought strong, original songs and a fresh interpretation of blues' dog-eared songbook. And as the flights between Haynes and Herrera proved, a jam can be an extension of a song, rather than a clumsy appendage.