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

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What I’ve Been Listening To: The J. Geils Band/The J. Geils Band

Ultimate party band’s studio debut went largely unnoticed

At first sight it’s somewhat puzzling. When The J. Geils Band released their eponymous studio debut in November 1970, they already had established themselves as a dynamic live act opening shows all around the country for top-notch artists like B.B. King, Johnny Winter and The Allman Brothers Band. Yet this dynamite album went largely unnoticed, barely making the Billboard 200 at no. 195, and not charting at all in other countries.

I was reminded how great this record is when Apple Music served it up to me as a listening suggestion. I also think this observation from their bio of the band is spot on: While their muscular sound and the hyper jive of frontman Peter Wolf packed arenas across America, it only rarely earned them hit singles. Seth Justman, the group’s main songwriter, could turn out catchy R&B-based rockers like “Give It To Me” and “Must Of Got Lost,” but these hits never led to stardom, primarily because the group had trouble capturing the energy of its live sound in the studio.

J. Geils Band 1970
The J. Geils Band (promotional photo from 1970)

The J. Geils Band started out as an acoustic blues trio in the mid-’60s, calling themselves Snoopy and the Sopwith Camels (clearly a ’60s name!) and consisting of J. Geils (guitar), Danny Klein (bass) and Richard Salwitz, known as “Magic Dick” (harmonica). In 1968, the band adopted an electric sound, hired Stephen Bladd (drums) and Peter Wolf (vocals), and became The J. Geils Blues Band. They completed their line-up when Seth Justman (keyboards) joined later that year. By the time they signed with Atlantic Records in 1970, the band had dropped “Blues” from their name and become The J. Geils Band.

Time for some music. Here’s the great opener Wait. One of the album’s five original tunes, it was co-written by Justman and Wolf.

Next up: Icebreaker (For The Big “M”), an excellent instrumental composed by Geils. Check out the cool guitar and harmonica harmony playing. This tune is cooking, even without Wolf’s vocals!

Hard Drivin’ Man is another terrific original track. It was co-written by Wolf and Geils.

I’d like to conclude this post with two covers by The J. Geils Band I’ve always liked. The first is called Homework, a tune co-written by Otis Rush, Al Perkins and Dave Clark. I believe the song was first recorded and released as a single in 1965 by Perkins and soul singer Betty Bibbs.

Last but not least, here’s First I Look At The Purse. Initially recorded by Motown act The Contours in 1965, the tune was co-written by Smokey Robinson and Bobby Rogers. It’s perhaps the example on the album, which best illustrates the above observation from the Apple Music bio. While it’s a great take, it feels a bit timid compared to the live version that can be found on the excellent Live Full House album from September 1972.

The J. Geils Band would go and record 10 additional studio albums and three live records, and release various compilations. Only one of their ’70s studio records, Bloodshot, charted in the top 10 on the Billboard 200 at no. 10. Ironically, shortly after the band finally hit commercial success with Freeze-Frame from October 1981, fueled by the singles Centerfold and the title track, The J. Geils Band started to fall apart.

Peter Wolf left in 1983. The band released one more album in October 1984, You’re Gettin’ Even While I’m Gettin’ Odd, and called it quits the following year. The J. Geils Band has since reunited for various tours. In 2012, J. Geils who after the 1985 breakup had gotten into auto racing and restoration, sewed the other band members, charging they had planned a tour without him. He quit permanently thereafter and sadly passed away in April 2017 at the age of 71.

Sources: Wikipedia, Apple Music, YouTube