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Gov't Mule Variations

Try as it may, fate can't moe. down the mule

By Peter Koht

Gov't Mule, the jam circuit's proverbial pack animal, is known for its grueling commitment to the road and extended improvisational sets that push the upper registers of its instruments. Formed by Allman Brothers Band alumni Warren Haynes and Allen Woody along with drummer Matt Abts, the group's power trio configuration was formed as a tribute to '60s icons Cream and the James Gang. It was a lean unit, everyone got some time in the spotlight and life was good.

The Mule instantly found a home on the burgeoning jam circuit with acts like Widespread Panic and Phish. But while most press coverage focused on the group's long relationship with the Brothers Allman and the neopsychedelic aura that surrounded it, one aspect of the group's ethos was overlooked-- the Mule is stubborn in the face of adversity.

In 2000, shortly after the release of their critically acclaimed record, Life Before Insanity, the close musical kinship that the group had developed came to a tragic end when bassist Allen Woody was found dead in a Manhattan hotel room from unknown causes.

After Woody's death, Gov't Mule decided to keep going. Moving away from the trio format, they got through their grief by exploring new sounds and expanding their lineup. Warren Haynes' guitar work is still front and center but, according to keyboardist Danny Louis, "the natural evolution of the band" dictated that the Mule would have to add 88 keys to the stage plot.

Louis had already established a close relationship with the Mule. He was close with Woody and had toured and recorded with Haynes in his solo project. Like his compatriots in Gov't Mule, Louis is no stranger to tragedy either. After crawling to the top of the New York session scene and playing with UB40 on their American tour, the talented trumpeter woke up one morning with Bell's Palsy. This disease, which affects around 40,000 people annually in the United States alone, is characterized by acute facial nerve paralysis. It also signaled the end of Louis' career in B-flat.

Fifteen years after contracting the disease, Louis is able to play the trumpet for only a few minutes at a time. Undeterred by the loss of his embouchure, Louis tried something different to get through the grief: he took up the keyboards. "When I switched jobs, I didn't feel like a keyboard player. But I am at a point now where I feel like a keyboardist."

While Louis was ushered into the group relatively quickly, the line of succession for the bass chair was a little more convoluted. After recording and touring with a rotating cast of some of the world's most talented bass players, including Les Claypool, Bootsy Collins and Mike Watt, the group eventually decided to invite Black Crowes bass player Andy Hess to join the band permanently. Though there is a lingering sadness over Woody's departure, Louis believes that Hess has "made the project his own. I think that if he heard the group now, Woody would smile."

Hess steeped into the pressure cooker when he left the Brothers Robinson. He had to learn around 90 tunes almost immediately and can't rely upon the Mule to deliver a predicable set list. Noting that constant repertoire shifts are preferable to "being stagnant," Louis is proud of the fact that his group "is learning new stuff constantly."

They have so much material that after a year on the road behind their latest release, Deja Voodoo, they are in a quandary whether to play their new material live or hoard it for themselves. Supporters of the fan taping movement, the members of the Mule are keenly aware that every set is being recorded and will be spread around the Internet rather indiscriminately. "Back in the day, if you wanted to road-test a song, the fans would hear about it and there might be a buzz," Louis says. "Now everyone might have a copy of it on their iPod or their laptop. We have to walk the line; we want to unveil new material, but we like to keep some things to ourselves."

Nevertheless, encoding of new material will be in full effect for this tour. Joined by Buffalo natives moe., Gov't Mule's latest shows are drawing huge audiences from across the jam band demographic. Noting his band's long association with the Allman Brothers and fans of '60s rock, Louis realizes that moe.'s fans come from "a different generation, to be sure, but the fans who come to see moe. are still staying to hear our music. We have to trust the fact that the audience is not only there to see their own team."

Gov't Mule plays with moe. Thursday, Oct. 20, at 8pm the Catalyst, 1011 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz; tickets are $21/advance, $25/door; 831.423.1338.

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From the October 19-26, 2005 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

Copyright © 2005 Metro Publishing Inc. Maintained by Boulevards New Media.

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