Talking Ry Cooder, Ronnie Montrose, and the Allmans with Gov’t Mule’s Warren Haynes



By Steve Newton

Bluesman Luther Allison, folk-pop troubadour Jeff Buckley, fingerstyle-guitar innovator Michael Hedges, and jazz drummer Tony Williams might seem unlikely heroes for a southern-rock band, but they’re who Gov’t Mule’s new CD, Dose, is dedicated to. Between the time the band started recording Dose and the deadline for liner notes, all four of those dearly loved musicians shuffled off this mortal coil.

“It was just a big shock to the musical community,” says Gov’t Mule’s Warren Haynes, on the line from Toronto. “All those guys are extreme heavyweights in their own right. And their spirit definitely touched our music, especially on this recording.”

Produced by Michael Barbiero (Soundgarden, Blues Traveler), Dose sees singer-guitarist Haynes, bassist Allen Woody, and drummer Matt Abts spicing up their rough-hewn southern rock with the odd brawny instrumental (you can guess who inspired “Thelonius Beck”), a Beatles cover (“She Said, She Said”), and a striking version of the traditional gospel-blues number “John the Revelator”.

“I’ve always been a big Son House fan,” says Haynes, “and kinda grew up on his version of that song, which was just him clapping his hands and singin’. I had done it that way live a few times, just a cappella, but our producer suggested maybe building like a haunting, eerie, sort of stark arrangement around it, and we gave it a go.”

“John the Revelator” is one of several tracks on Dose to feature Haynes’s acclaimed slide guitar–playing, which won him best-slide-guitarist honours two years running in the prestigious Guitar Player readers’ poll. “I was very flattered by that,” says Haynes, “but I didn’t necessarily agree with it. I mean, some of the people that I won out over are some of my favourite slide-guitar players, so it kinda made me feel a little strange. I think Ry Cooder is the man, you know.”

Haynes also won out over Johnny Winter and Sonny Landreth, two more of his favourite slide specialists, but the guitar fans who voted for Haynes had good reason for doing so. Up until he and Woody resigned from the Allman Brothers Band last year, Haynes was deftly handling the slide parts previously performed by the legendary Duane Allman. Haynes looks back fondly on his eight years of picking alongside ABB coguitarist Dickie Betts, but says that there just came a time when he and Woody had to leave the fold.

“Gov’t Mule was starting to occupy a lot more of our attention,” he explains. “We spent the last three years that Woody and I were in the Allman Brothers doin’ two bands, goin’ back and forth from the Gov’t Mule bus to the Allman Brothers bus. For a while everything was cool, but eventually, as Gov’t Mule progressed into something we knew we could turn into something special, we knew that the only way we could do that was to do it full-time.”

It was while Haynes and Woody were on tour with the Allmans in ’94 that they jammed with Abts at an L.A. club, and shortly thereafter they formed Gov’t Mule. Abts’s previous drumming stint with Ronnie Montrose also led to Haynes’s fulfilling one of his teenage rock dreams when he got to jam with the hard-rock guitar hero at an L.A. bar. Haynes had the distinction of stepping into Sammy Hagar’s old shoes, singing lead on “Rock Candy”, a crunchy metal anthem from the pioneering Montrose album of ’73. “We came out and just kinda winged it that night,” recalls Haynes. “And I was able to remind Ronnie that the first rock concert I ever saw was the Edgar Winter Group in 1972, and he was playing guitar.”

Bachman-Turner Overdrive is another influential rock act that Haynes liked in the ’70s, and he revisited his youth again by sharing the guitar and vocal duties on Big Sugar’s version of BTO’s “Let It Ride”, on its new Heated CD. “That’s a very interesting take on that song,” notes the North Carolina native, “very different from the original.”

The night before he called the Straight, Haynes actually joined Big Sugar guitarist-vocalist Gordie Johnson on-stage in Kitchener for a four-song jam that included “Let It Ride” and the old blues-rock standard “30 Days in the Hole”, of which a Johnson-produced version is slated for the Hempilation 2 CD. Haynes hints that Vancouverites can expect to see more jamming when the two bands converge at the Rage on Monday and Tuesday (November 16 and 17), but if you want to see him and Johnson trading licks you’d best be quick. Monday night’s already sold-out.

As well as giving local rock fans a chance to check out one of Canada’s most exhilarating live combos, the pairing also offers the opportunity to witness one of the few authentic power trios still on the scene. “I think it’s like a fresh alternative from a lot of what’s goin’ on musically,” says Haynes, “and there’s something about the utilization of space in a trio that really is a special thing. We all love it, and it seems to translate to the audience as well.”

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