July 21, 2009
"Where’s my Mule" has been a question posed for years in the tune "Mule," and we finally have our answer. After six years of relative absence, The Mule has returned.
I’m going to go ahead and break a cardinal rule of journalism and write this review in first person, because I feel the need. Everyone has "their" band, and from the first time I caught them live the summer of 1997, Gov’t Mule has been mine. They’ve always been the "total package," in my opinion – the consumate rock band. The musical talent is there, the songwriting is there, the vocals are there…they really do have it all, where many bands just don’t, and this resonated with me from day one.
Ironically, it took me several times seeing them with Andy Hess to notice something was "off" – that the Mule attitude just wasn’t the same any more. Perhaps it was just the jaded fan, happy that some degree of consistency had returned to my band (I even wrote a 2003 review for jambands.com proclaiming my happiness with the choice upon seeing that line-up for the first time).
At the time, I really did feel Hess was the right choice – there was room for the Mule to grow with him. He’s a talented musician and solid player, but as the years went by, he just fit less and less with what I perceived the right guy for the band to be (but, no one asked me). All the same, sticking a guy like George Porter Jr (who seemed the heavy favorite for the job at the time they hired Hess) into the position would have added the wrong flavor as well.
It culminated with the last time I saw the band – October 2007, a show that didn’t work for many reasons and that I walked out of – I didn’t "feel it" and midway through the second set, I left.
So, here we are six years later. Again, Mule in Memphis. Again, my first time seeing a bass player manning the low end for my favorite band. And, again, I went into it with no expectations short of the internet buzz I’d read. I hadn’t heard a lick of his music. I hadn’t heard any live shows from other cities, seen any of the streaming video from any fest appearances. Nothing short of reputation gave me any preconceived notions as to how Jorgen Carlsson meshed with the band.
Warren Haynes and company came out to a semi-packed Minglewood Hall – maybe 1000 strong. The band sounded good from the opening notes of "Bad Little Doggie." Danny Louis added some really colorful keyboard fills in tasteful places. A few post-Allen Woody songs ("Mr. High & Mighty" and "About To Rage") followed, making it a little tougher to gauge Carlsson’s effect on the band…no basis for comparison on songs Woody never touched.
With "Devil Likes It Slow," things turned up a notch, and Carlsson began to emerge. His runs up and down the neck of his bass drove the tune, and he and Haynes clearly had a rapport. Frankly, the entire band seemed at a different level. Matt Abts? Well, that guy generally only drives at one speed – fast as hell – when he’s pushing Mule forward with his drumming. He’s a beast, but that’s not news to anyone, and that animal was let out of its cage at this point, and frankly, Louis seemed to be taking his playing to places that I either hadn’t heard before, or just hadn’t noticed.
When Abts started pounding the opening beat to "No Need To Suffer," I knew I’d have my chance to make an informed decision. For me, Woody’s bass solo on this tune was one of the benchmarks, because he always seemed to be able to take a relatively soft, tender song and turn it on its head with his bass tone during his solo. It’s a song that was played a lot with Woody, but was a bit rarer without.
With the first few notes of the bass solo section, my heart warmed just a bit, and a grin spread across my face. I felt like I was almost home – almost. There never will be another Allen Woody. His tone, his attack, his technique – he owned them.
However, as Carlsson eased his way into the meat of his solo, one thing was abundantly clear – he had that low, guttural tone that had been missing for years. Carlsson’s bass growled through its solo yet retained the delicate notes that the song calls for. As the pace picked up Haynes jumped in and his guitar exploded through the speakers. The Mule raged on like the band of old. It was a beautiful moment to hear, and as my eyes closed and body moved with the music, I was transported back to a place that I really hadn’t been in almost a decade.
Haynes solo ended, the crowd cheered, and as "No Need To Suffer" ended, a crystal-clear message was delivered: the band I loved was back. The first set ended with protypical Mule – "32/20 Blues" and "30 Days In The Hole," the latter of which stamped with more growling bass from Carlsson.
After a short break, the second set started with "John The Revelator" and heated up with "Lay Your Burden Down > Minglewood Blues > Smokestack Lightning > Lay Your Burden Down."
"Inside Outside Woman Blues," a track from the forthcoming album, made its debut towards the end of the set and is sure to be a scorcher as it works itself into the setlists with regularity.
"Blind Man In The Dark" removed any last doubt that, at the very least, Mule is transitioning back to the Mule of old – the one that delivered night in and night out. "Blind Man" was raw and unbridled. During Louis’ solo, Haynes’ guitar screeched like a banshee, Abts was beating the crap out of his drums, and Carlsson drove the entire jam with his fire-and-brimstone bass licks. It was dark, mysterious, and felt like the train could derail at any moment. As the song came to a close – as Haynes, Abts, and Carlsson all let loose in synch – I could literally feel it in my chest.
The show wrapped as Mule shows tend to – with "Soulshine." Frankly, I’m not a "Soulshine" detractor, because it truly is a beautiful song, but this "Soulshine" just felt especially different. It felt like all was right in my musical world.