with Chris Whitley
The Georgia Theatre, Athens, GA • September 22, 1999
There are three types of Gov’t Mule shows. The first is when the power blues-influenced trio sticks with their own great material, such as “Mule” and “Temporary Saint.” The second is where the band dips into their influences of Cream, Hendrix and Free and do a night of heavy blues jamming. The third and final is a night of jaw dropping, jazz-infused guitar work, a night of free-form improvisation that’d make Miles Davis or John Coltrane proud. That’s what we got when the Mule rolled into Athens for their 10th show in the city, bringing with them a score of guest stars and plenty of hot guitar licks.
Possibly the most pleasant surprise of the evening was the opener, Chris Whitley. The iconoclastic singer/songwriter took the stage alone, armed only with his clever tunes and a National steel guitar. Rocking the stage like the Delta bluesmen of old were wont to due, Whitley eventually won over the Mule crowd (even one peon who commanded the musician to “get his ass off the stage and get Warren on, man”).
When the Mule finally took the stage, the crowd was ready to be blown away, and Warren Haynes and company were happy to oblige. From the opener “Thorazine Shuffle” to the all-star closer jam, the Mule was firing on all cylinders and wowed the crowd with their sheer power. Haynes was in fine form, both on his axe and vocally, and the powerhouse rhythm section of Allen Woody and Matt Abts thundered along for a full, rich sound. The real treat of the night, however, was the guest stars. Dan Matrazzo (of Col. Bruce Hampton’s Fiji Mariners and possessor the world’s best “pained musician” face) joined the band for a killer rendition of Traffic’s “The Low Spark of the High-Heeled Boys.” Another Hampton alumni, Jimmy Harris (now with Jazz is Dead) sat in for a few tunes, but the mind-blowing jazz guitarist John Scofield opened the most eyes that evening. With outstanding technique and a near-flawless touch, Scofield’s first night (on this tour) with Mule positively scorched, and the jazzy guitar jams were simply incredible.
The band ran through a number of jazz-influenced jams, such as “Kind of Bird” and “Birth of the Mule,” and Haynes shined vocally on his own “Soulshine” and a cover of Little Feat’s “Spanish Moon.” There is a line of thought that says the reason the Mule is so much more powerful than the current crop of Allman Brothers/Grateful Dead-influenced jams bands is due to Haynes’s great original songs and soulful voice; thus it would’ve been nice to hear less jamming and more songcraft. That’s true to a point, but with a night of such outstanding performances from all involved, it’s hard to be disappointed with what we got.