The Mule Rule on Their New “First-Ever Blues Album”

I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. After all, guitarist, songwriter and producer Warren Haynes doesn’t strike me as an artist who does things half-ass. Still, I didn’t quite know what to expect when I saw Gov’t Mule came out with what the Southern jam rockers billed as their “first-ever blues album.” In fact, I don’t follow the group closely, so had missed when they had first announced the record back in September. Well, I suppose, based on this post’s headline, you already figured out that I’m pretty excited about Heavy Load Blues, which was released last Friday, November 12.

According to this Rock & Blues Muse review, the album was recorded live in-studio at Power Station New England. The MuleWarren Haynes (guitar, lead vocals), Danny Louis (keyboards, guitar, backing vocals), Jorgen Carlsson (bass) and Matt Abts (drums) – recorded the tracks to analog tape, using vintage equipment. Clearly, this was all done to create an authentic sound, and the result is sweet! The album, which was co-produced by Haynes and John Paterno, covers tunes by the likes of Howlin’ Wolf, Elmore James and Junior Wells, and includes some original songs written by Haynes.

Govt Mule Press September 2021
Gov’t Mule (from left): Matt Abs, Danny Louis, Jorgen Carlsson and Warren Haynes – Photo by Jay Sansone

“For me, personally, it’s kind of been on my list of things to do for years,” Haynes said in a statement on Gov’t Mule’s website. “I didn’t know if it was gonna be a solo album or a Gov’t Mule record,” he further noted. “We play some traditional blues on stage from time to time and although it’s usually never more than a few songs per show, our approach to the blues is unique and based on our collective chemistry as a band. This album gave us a mission.”

Well, let’s get to some of the goodies. Kicking off the album is a great rendition of Blues Before Sunrise, which I believe was first recorded in 1934 by blues guitar and piano duo Scrapper Blackwell and Leroy Carr. Interestingly, Gov’t Mule’s clip lists Elmore James and Joe Josea as the tune’s composers. I found a recording by James from 1955, credited to him and Josea, which implies they couldn’t have written the original song. Perhaps they changed it up a bit and subsequently claimed it as their own – not unheard of, especially when it comes to the blues. In any case, I love The Mule’s shuffling rendition. Haynes’ slide guitar sounds great, as does his voice, which reminds me a bit of Gregg Allman.

Hole In My Soul is one of the original tunes written by Haynes, and it’s a true beauty. The horn section of Pam Fleming (trumpet), Jenny Jill (tenor saxophone) and Buford O’Sullivan (trombone) sounds beautiful, adding a nice soul vibe to the track. Danny Louis’ Hammond in the background gives me goosebumps – admittedly, a Hammond does that to me pretty frequently! Again, Haynes is doing a great job on guitar and vocals.

One of the album’s highlights is a medley blending Snatch It Back and Hold It, a 1965 tune by Junior Wells, and Hold It Back, a jam credited to The Mule. Check out the official video. Seeing these guys in action in the studio is really cool! Yes, at close to 8 minutes, it’s on the longer side, but what do you expect from jam rockers? BTW, long tracks are one of the reasons why I’m not an all-out fan of jam rock. However, in this case, it doesn’t bother me since I dig the blues, plus the band doesn’t overdo it by playing millions of notes during their solos!

Some people said it was cocaine/Some people said it was gin/But I know the name of the motherfucker that did my brother in//They put the last clean shirt/On my poor brother Bill/They put the last clean shirt/On my poor brother Bill…You know a song that starts out that way just has to be good. Co-written by Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller and Clyde Otis, Brother Bill (The Last Clean Shirt) was recorded by The Animals for their 1977 reunion album Before We Were So Rudely Interrupted. On Discogs, I also found a 1964 version by The Honeyman, an alias of Charles Otis, a drummer who performed with the likes of Otis Redding, John Lee Hooker and Sam Cooke.

Here is the album’s de facto title track Heavy Load, another Haynes composition, and one of two acoustic blues songs on the record. During an extended webcam interview with Musicoff – Where Music Matters, Haynes explained he used a 1929 Gibson L-1, the same type of guitar delta blues legend Robert Johnson played, while Danny Louis performed on a ’60s Gibson Hummingbird. For folks who are into music gear and recording, the 21-minute interview includes a wealth of additional information. Meanwhile, check out this tune, which sounds really neat!

The last track I’d like to highlight is I Asked For Water (She Gave Me Gasoline), a song written by Chester Burnett, aka Howlin’ Wolf. The tune appeared on his 1959 debut album Moanin’ in the Moonlight. The Mule’s rendition is quite heavy and funky. In the above Musicoff interview Haynes explained he wanted to maintain and capture the “nastiness and darkness” of the original while giving it a distinct musical feel. This sounds really raw!

I think this statement from Haynes nicely sums up Heavy Load Blues: “Although in some way it was ‘anything goes,’ we wanted to stay true to the spirit of the blues in a traditional sense. It’s not a blues/rock record – it’s a blues record. We wanted it sonically to sound different from a normal Gov’t Mule record.”

Speaking of a Gov’t Mule record, in the above Musicoff interview, Haynes noted that during the pandemic he had written a lot of new material for the group. When they decided to make a blues album, Haynes suggested recording it along with a new Gov’t Mule album. Apparently, that’s what they did after they had been able to find a studio that allowed them to set up in two different rooms: a small room with a low ceiling where they were close to each other, like performing on a stage in a small music club, and a big room where they could set up for a “normal” Gov’t Mule recording. Again, check out the interview for additional insights.

My takeaway from the Musicoff interview is that in addition to Heavy Load Blues fans of The Mule can also look forward to an original album in the not-so-distant future. I’m actually surprised the interviewer didn’t ask Haynes about it, even though Haynes brought it up. Perhaps it had been agreed that discussing the details was off-limits at this time not to distract from the blues album. I guess for now fans will have to wait and see.

Double LP Back Cover

Heavy Load Blues comes in a standard 13-track version and an expanded deluxe edition. The latter features eight additional studio and live bonus tracks, including one more Haynes original and renditions of tunes by Savoy Brown, Sonny Boy Williamson, Muddy Waters and Otis Rush. Following are the track listings of each edition.

Standard Edition Track Listing:
1. Blues Before Sunrise
2. Hole In My Soul
3. Wake Up Dead
4. Love Is A Mean Old World
5. Snatch It Back and Hold It – Hold It Back – Snatch It Back and Hold It
6. Ain’t No Love In The Heart Of The City
7. (Brother Bill) Last Clean Shirt
8. Make It Rain
9. Heavy Load
10. Feel Like Breaking Up Somebody’s Home
11. If Heartaches Were Nickels
12. I Asked Her For Water (She Gave Me Gasoline)
13. Black Horizon

Bonus Tracks on Deluxe Version:
1. Hiding Place
2. You Know My Love
3. Street Corner Talking
4. Have Mercy On The Criminal
5. Long Distance Call
6. Feel Like Breaking Up Somebody’s Home (Extended Version)
7. Need Your Love So Bad (Live)
8. Good Morning Little School Girl with Hook Herrera (Live)

Sources: Wikipedia; Rock & Blues Muse; Gov’t Mule website; Discogs; Musicoff – Where Music Matters; YouTube

Of Slides and Bottlenecks

The sound of a well played slide guitar is one of the coolest in music in my opinion. I’ve always loved it. It’s also one of the most challenging techniques that requires great precision and lots of feeling. You can easily be off, which to me is the equivalent of a violin player who hasn’t mastered yet how to properly use the bow or a trumpet player who is still working on their blowing technique – in other words real torture, if you miss!

I thought it would be fun putting together a post that features great slide guitarists from different eras. Before getting to some music, I’d like to give a bit of background on the technique and a very brief history. More specifically, I’m focusing on slide guitar played in the traditional position, i.e., flat against the body, as opposed to lap steel guitar where the instrument is placed in a player’s lap and played with a hand-held bar.

How to Play Slide Guitar - Quickstart Guide | Zing Instruments

Slide guitar is a technique where the fret hand uses a hard object called a slide instead of the fingers to change the pitch of the strings. The slide, which oftentimes is a metal of a glass tube aka “bottle neck,” is fitted on one of the guitarist’s fingers. Holding it against the strings while moving it up and down the fretboard creates glissando or gliding effects and also offers the opportunity to play pronounced vibratos. The strings are typically plucked, not strummed with the other hand.

The technique of holding a hard object against a plucked string goes back to simple one-string African instruments. In turn, these instruments inspired the single-stringed diddley bow, which was developed as a children’s toy by Black slaves in the U.S. It was considered an entry-level instrument played by adolescent boys who once they mastered it would move on to a regular guitar.

Clockwise starting from left in upper row: Sylvester Weaver, Robert Johnson, Elmore James, Brian Jones, Mike Boomfield, Muddy Waters, Duane Allman, Bonnie Raitt, Ry Cooder and Derek Trucks

The bottleneck slide guitar technique was popularized by blues musicians in the Mississippi Delta near the beginning of the twentieth century. Country blues pioneer Sylvester Weaver made the first known slide guitar recording in 1923. Robert Nighthawk, Earl Hooker, Elmore James, Muddy Waters and other blues artists popularized the use of slide guitar in the electric blues genre. In turn, they influenced the next generation of blues and rock guitarists like Mike Bloomfield (The Paul Butterfield Blues Band), Brian Jones (The Rolling Stones), Duane Allman (The Allman Brothers Band) and Ry Cooder.

Time for some music. Here’s Sylvester Weaver with the instrumental Guitar Blues, one of the earliest slide guitar recordings.

One of the masters of Delta blues who prominently used slide guitar was Robert Johnson. Here’s the amazing Cross Road Blues from 1936 from one of only two recording sessions in which Johnson participated. If you haven’t heard this version but it somehow sounds familiar, chances are you’ve listened to Cream’s cover titled Crossroads.

Are you ready to shake it? Here’s smoking hot Shake Your Money Maker written by Elmore James. James released this classic blues standard in December 1961.

The Rolling Stones were fans of the Chicago blues. One of their blues gems featuring Brian Jones on slide guitar was Little Red Rooster, which they released as a single in the UK in November 1964. It was also included on their third American studio album The Rolling Stones, Now! from February 1965. Written by Willie Dixon, the tune was first recorded by Howlin’ Wolf in October 1961.

Next is Walkin’ Blues, which The Paul Butterfield Blues Band covered on their second studio album East-West from August 1966, featuring Mike Bloomfield on slide guitar. The tune was written by Delta blues artist Son House in 1930.

In May 1969, Muddy Waters released his sixth studio album After the Rain. Here’s slide guitar gem Rollin’ and Tumblin’, which was first recorded by Hambone Willie Newbern (gotta love this name!) in 1929. It’s unclear who wrote the tune.

Here’s one of the greatest slide guitarists of all time: Duane Allman with The Allman Brothers Band and One Way Out. This amazing rendition appeared on an expanded version of At Fillmore East released in October 1992. The original edition appeared in July 1971, three months prior to Duane’ deadly motorcycle accident. Co-written by Marshall Sehorn and Elmore James, the tune was first recorded and released in the early to mid-’60s by Sonny Boy Williamson II and James.

A post about slide guitar wouldn’t be complete without the amazing Bonnie Raitt, an artist I’ve dug for many years. Here’s Sugar Mama, a song co-written by Delbert McClinton and Glen Clark, which she recorded for her fifth studio album Home Plate from 1975.

Let’s do two more tracks performed by two additional must-include slide guitar masters. First up is Ry Cooder with Feelin’ Bad Blues, a tune Cooder wrote for the soundtrack of the 1986 picture Crossroads, which was inspired by the life of Robert Johnson. This is a true slide beauty!

Last but not least, here’s Derek Trucks who is considered to be one of the best contemporary slide guitarists. Trucks is best known as an official member of the Allmans from 1999-2014 and as co-founder of the Tedeschi Trucks Band, which he formed together with his wife Susan Tedeschi in 2010. Here’s a great live performance of Desdemona by The Allman Brothers, featuring some amazing slide guitar playing by Trucks. Co-written by Gregg Allman and Warren Haynes, the tune was included on the band’s final studio album Hittin’ the Note that came out in March 2003.

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube

Van Morrison Teams Up With Joey DeFrancesco On New Jazz Album

After almost 60 years, Van the Man shows no signs of slowing down

Van Morrison has kept pretty busy over the past few years. Since September 2016, he has released four studio albums, the latest of which, You’re Driving Me Crazy, just appeared yesterday. Think about this for a moment, how many septuagenarian music artists do you know who are as productive as Van the Man? Of course, ultimately, it should be about quality, not quantity. After having listened to this new album, I have to say I really dig it!

So, how does Morrison’s 39th studio release compare to his other albums? Frankly, given my significant knowledge gaps about his music, I can’t give a fully informed answer. I certainly like Moondance better, but I’m not sure this comparison makes a lot of sense. Is it a good jazz record? That’s another tough question for me to answer, since I rarely listen to jazz. But while this isn’t Morrison’s first jazz album and jazz has been a key influence for his music over the decades, it’s safe to assume the Belfast Cowboy isn’t on the radar screen of most hard-core jazz fans.

Van Morrison & Joey DeFrancesco

Here’s the deal, as far as I’m concerned. After having listened to music for some 40 years and as a past hobby musician who still occasionally grabs a guitar, I’m confident enough to say I know good music when I hear it. To my ears, Morrison and his partner in crime Joey DeFrancesco delivered a beautiful record that is smooth and grooves nicely throughout. While recording the tracks live in the studio, they apparently also had a lot of fun – you can literally hear laughter during and after some of the songs!

The album’s 15 tunes feature a mix of reworked jazz and blues songs like Every Day I Have The Blues (Peter Chatman), The Things I Used To Do (Eddie Jones) and Miss Otis Regrets (Cole Porter), together with new takes of orignal Morrison tracks, such as All Saints Day (Hymns To The Silence, 1991), The Way Young Lovers Do (Astral Weeks, 1968) and Close Enough For Jazz (Too Long In Exile, 1993). Morrison shares writing credits for Evening Shadows with Bernard Stanley “Acker” Bill, an English clarinettist and vocalist  who passed away in November 2014. He first recorded the tune with Bill for his 2002 studio album Down The Road.

With DeFrancesco, Morrison selected a heavy hitter. Over a now 30-year professional career, the 47-year-old American jazz organist, trumpeter and vocalist has worked with the likes of Miles Davis, David Sanborn, John McLaughlin and Ray Charles. I love DeFrancesco’s playing on the album, especially his work on the Hammond organ. According to Rolling Stone, it was also DeFrancesco who put together the backing musicians for the recording sessions: Dan Wilson (guitar), Michael Ode (drums) and Troy Roberts (saxophone). I’d say the time has come for some music!

The record opens with Miss Otis Regrets, a relaxing jazz standard composed by Cole Porter in 1934. The piece is a testament to Morrison’s apparent appreciation of old jazz.

The Way Young Lovers Do takes Morrison back all the way to 1968 and his second studio album Astral Weeks, which I understand is widely considered to be one of his best records. I think this new version presents a nice slightly smoother take, though one certainly needs to consider the whooping 50 years that separate the two recordings.

Another great cover is The Things I Used To Do. Originally, this 12-bar blues tune was written by Eddie Jones, better known as Guitar Slim, and released in 1953. By the way, the producer was then-23-year-old Ray Charles. I like how Morrison and DeFrancesco give the tune a nice jazz feel that makes you want to snip your fingers. The tune is a great example of DeFrancesco’s ace work on the Hammond. I also dig Wilson’s guitar-playing.

Close Enough For Jazz originally was recorded by Morrison as an instrumental for Too Long In Exile, his 22nd studio record from 1993. This new version is a tick faster and more immportantly adds vocals, a nice take.

Everyday I Have The Blues is a blues standard by John Chatman, also known as Memphis Slim. The American blues pianist, singer and composer first recorded the tune in 1947. In addition to Morrison, many other artists covered the song, including B.B. King, Elmore James and Fleetwood Mac during their blues days with Peter Green.

The last track I’d like to highlight is Have I Told You Lately, a Morrison tune he first recorded as a ballad for his 19th studio album Avalon Sunset, which appeared in 1989. Admittedly, until now, I only had known the Rod Stewart version from his 1993 Unplugged…And Seated album. Morrison’s new take speeds up the original and gives it a jazz groove. The updated version also uses a female backup singer whose name I haven’t been able to find. But she surely sounds great, as do the Hammond and the horns.

This post wouldn’t be complete without some commentary from Van The Man himself. During a rare phone interview with The New York Times he said, “My thing is not talking about music. It’s about doing it. Other people talk about it, and they make a living talking about it. I make a living kind of singing it and playing it. If it feels right, and it’s the right kind of vibe, then you should just go with it.” Amen to that!

Sources: Wikipedia, Rolling Stone, The New York Times, YouTube