Playing for Change – Reimaging a World Connected by Music

The other day, I came across an amazing video clip featuring Robbie Robertson and a bunch of well-known and to me unknown, yet pretty talented other musicians from all over the world, playing The Weight, one of my favorite tunes by The Band. At first, I only paid attention to their great version of the iconic song and ignored the chiron at the beginning and the end of the clip that notes “Playing for Change.” Then, I noticed other video clips on YouTube, which were also put together by Playing for Change. Finally, I got curious. Who or what is Playing for Change?

It didn’t take long to find their website, which describes their story as follows: Playing For Change is a movement created to inspire and connect the world through music… Playing For Change was born in 2002 as a shared vision between co-founders, Mark Johnson and Whitney Kroenke, to hit the streets of America with a mobile recording studio and cameras in search of inspiration and the heartbeat of the people. This musical journey resulted in the award-winning documentary, “A Cinematic Discovery of Street Musicians.”

PFC Co-Founders
PFC co-founders Mark Johnson & Whitney Kroenke

In 2005, Mark Johnson was walking in Santa Monica, California, when he heard the voice of Roger Ridley singing “Stand By Me.” Roger had so much soul and conviction in his voice, and Mark approached him about performing “Stand By Me” as a Song Around the World. Roger agreed, and when Mark returned with recording equipment and cameras he asked Roger, “With a voice like yours, why are you singing on the streets?” Roger replied, “Man I’m in the Joy business, I come out to be with the people.” Ever since that day the Playing For Change crew has traveled the world recording and filming musicians, creating Songs Around the World, and building a global family.

Creating Songs Around the World inspired us to unite many of the greatest musicians we met throughout our journey and form the Playing For Change Band. These musicians come from many different countries and cultures, but through music they speak the same language. Songs Around The World The PFC Band is now touring the world and spreading the message of love and hope to audiences everywhere.

I realize the above may embellish things a bit; still, PFC sounds like an intriguing concept. They also created the Playing for Change Foundation, a separate nonprofit organization that is funded through donations and supports arts and music programs for children around the world. Based on the foundation’s website, it looks like a legitimate organization. That being said, this isn’t an endorsement. Let’s get back to what originally brought me here – recorded musicians all over the world performing the same song and everything being neatly put together in pretty compelling video clips. Before getting to the above mentioned Robbie Roberson clip, let’s take a look at some of PFC’s other videos.

Walking Blues (Son House)

Walking Blues was written and first recorded by delta blues musician Son House in 1930. Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters and other blues musicians recorded their own versions. This clip features Kevin Roosevelt Moore, aka Keb’ Mo’, along with other musicians from Argentina, South Africa, Spain and Morocco. Apparently, the clip was put together in honor of Johnson’s birthday. Check it out!

Soul Rebel (Bob Marley)

Written by Bob Marley, Soul Rebel is the opener to Soul Rebels, the second studio album by Bob Marley and the Wailers, which appeared in December 1970. This clip features Bunny Wailer, an original member of the Wailers, French guitarist Manu Chao and Jamaican reggae singer Bushman, along with other musicians from Jamaica, Spain, Morocco, Cuba, Argentina and the U.S. Feel free to groove along!

Listen to the Music (Tom Johnston)

Listen to the Music is a classic by The Doobie Brothers from their second studio album Toulouse Street released in July 1972. It was written by guitarist and vocalist Tom Johnston, one of the band’s founding members. Apart from Johnston and fellow Doobies Patrick Simmons and John McFee, the clip features other musicians from Venezuela, India, Brazil, Lebanon, Japan, Argentina, Senegal, Congo, South Africa and the U.S., including a gospel choir from Mississippi. This is just a joy to watch!

All Along the Watchtower (Bob Dylan)

While perhaps best known by The Jimi Hendrix Experience, All Along the Watchtower was written by Bob Dylan. He first recorded it for John Wesley Harding, his eighth studio album from December 1967. Check out this riveting take featuring Cyril Neville of The Neville Brothers, John Densmore of The Doors and Warren Haynes of The Allman Brothers Band and Gov’t Mule, along with other musicians from Italy, Zimbabwe, Lebanon, Niger, Ghana, India, Japan, Mali and the U.S. The latter include singers and dancers from the Lakota, a native American tribe that is part of the Great Sioux Nation. This is just mind-boggling to watch!

The Weight (Robbie Robertson)

And finally, here comes the crown jewel that inspired the post: The Weight written by Robbie Robertson, and first recorded for the debut album by The Band, Music From Big Pink, released in July 1968. This clip was co-produced by PFC co-founder Mark Johnson and Robbie’s son Sebastian Johnson to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the song. And it’s quite a star-studded affair: In addition to Robertson, the clip features Ringo Starr, blues guitarist Marcus King, roots rockers Larkin Poe and country-rock guitarist Lucas Nelson, along with other musicians from Italy, Japan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Kingdom of Bahrain, Spain, Argentina, Nepal and Jamaica – what a beautiful tribute to this great tune. Just watch the smile on Robertson’s face at the end. He knows how figgin’ awesome this came out – priceless!

PFC clearly has their go-to musicians in each country, and they’re not hobby musicians. Based on PFC’s website, all musicians are professionals who appear to be recognized within their countries. While as such one could argue PFC doesn’t seem to use amateur/ hobby musicians, it doesn’t take away anything of the concept’s beauty, in my view. Most of their videos capture songs performed by individual artists from different countries or by the PFC band. But it’s the song-around-the-world videos I find most impressive. You can watch all of PFC’s clips on their YouTube channel.

Sources: Wikipedia; Playing For Change website; Playing for Change Foundation website; YouTube

Mule Rule Stone Pony Summer Stage But Not Weather Gods

Jersey jam rockers Resurrextion open evening at storied Asbury Park venue

While I had heard of Gov’t Mule before, my introduction to the band only happened about a year ago when I went to see one of their excellent Dark Side of the Mule Pink Floyd tribute shows. Recently, New Jersey jam rock band Resurrextion invited me to their kickoff yesterday of an evening of music at The Stone Pony to be headlined by Mule. I’ve visited the Asbury Park performance venue many times, but last evening was my inaugural for a summer stage show – and a reminder that outdoor events aren’t immune from inclement weather! 🙂

But first things first. Initially formed in Jersey City in 2006, Resurrextion  started out as a jam rock cover band. After beginning to work on own material, they released their studio debut Comin’ Home in 2013. As the band gained more visibility and opened for national acts like Dickey Betts, Foghat, Poco and Blues Traveler, music increasingly started to interfere with their day jobs and families, so they decided to take a break.

Ressurrextion
Resurrextion (from left): Phil Ippolito, Johnny Burke, Joey Herr and Lou Perillo

Last year, Resurrextion reunited and have since performed at many Jersey venues in Asbury Park and beyond. In April, they opened for Iron Butterfly at The Wonder Bar. Earlier this month, they played the Stonehenge Music Festival in Pennsylvania. They’re also currently working on a new album while still continuing their daytime jobs, not to mention their family responsibilities. It looks like things are coming together nicely again for this band! The current lineup includes Phil Ippolito (lead vocals, keyboards),  Joey Herr (guitar, vocals), Lou Perillo (bass, vocals) and Johnny Burke (drums, vocals). I’ve known most of the guys for a couple of years.

Here’s Highway, an original tune with a nice southern rock vibe from the aforementioned debut album – my personal favorite!

And here’s another song they wrote, I Know, also from their first record.

On to The Mule. The southern jam rock band was co-founded by Warren Haynes and Allen Woody in 1994 as a side project to The Allman Brothers Band, where at the time they played guitar and bass, respectively. Their eponymous debut album came out in June 1995. They have since released 21 additional albums, including various life records. Their most recent studio album Revolution Come…Revolution Go appeared in June 2017.

Gov't Mule
Gov’t Mule (from left): Matt Abts, Danny Louis, Jorgen Carlsson and Warren Haynes

The band’s current lineup features Haynes (guitar, lead vocals), Matt Abts (drums), Danny Louis (keyboards, backing vocals) and Jorgen Carlsson (bass). Haynes and Abts are the only original members. Woody passed away in August 2000. Louis joined Mule prior to their sixth studio album Déjà Voodoo from September 2004, while Carlsson has been with the band since 2008. Time for more music!

Here’s Beautifully Broken. Co-written by Haynes and Louis, the tune is from The Deep End, Volume 1, Mule’s fourth studio album released in October 2001.

Next up: I’m A Ram, the opener from Mule’s eighth studio album Mighty High from October 2007. The song was co-written by Al Green and Mabon Hodges and first appeared on Green’s 1971 studio album Al Green Gets Next To You. I dig the combination between rock and reggae on this one, though I guess I would have been okay, had the band stuck to the already mighty 7:41-minute studio version rather than stretching the track even further to more than 9 minutes. Note to self: When seeing another jam rock band, bring a friggin’ tripod!

Following a 20-minute intermission, Mule opened their second set with my personal highlight of the night: Stone Cold Rage. It’s the opener from the Revolution Come…Revolution Go album and another Haynes/Louis co-write.

After one more tune, Kind Of Birth, a Stone Pony official walked up on stage and told something in Haynes’ ear. And before people knew it, Haynes told the crowd there was lightening close by, and the concert needed to be interrupted. Immediately thereafter, security cleared the outdoor area and directed everybody inside the Pony where another band was playing. Minutes later, rain came down heavily.  While the downpour only lasted about 20 to 25 minutes, Mule did not resume their show.

It certainly was a less than ideal ending of the evening, and based on Facebook comments, some folks were pretty pissed about how the situation was handled. My guess is the primary culprit were local noise ordinances, which probably prevented the band from resuming the concert after the rain had stopped – or at least would not have allowed them to complete their second set. One also wonders whether the weather situation could have been monitored more closely and Mule could have skipped their break to play more music. In fairness, I will add it was pretty hot, at least when they started their first set, so one can defend taking a break after playing some 45 to 60 minutes.

Here’s last night’s set list:

Set 1:
– Hammer & Nails
– Rocking Horse
– Game Face
– Mountain Jam
– Game Face
– Beautifully Broken
– Birth Of The Mule
– I’m A Ram
– Broke Down On The Brazos
– Tributary Jam

Set 2:
– Stone Cold Rage
– Kind Of Bird with Les Brers In A Minor tease

Overall, I thought Mule’s musicianship was outstanding. Haynes undoubtedly is a kickass guitarist and a pretty capable vocalist. The other standout to me, and I’m of course completely unbiased here, was Carlsson who really killed it on bass. 🙂 To be clear, Abts and Louis were excellent as well. Perhaps my one point of criticism is the jam aspect, which at times felt a bit overwhelming to me, with songs frequently exceeding seven or eight minutes in length. Yes, you might say, long tracks and instrumental parts are kind of the essence of jam music, and I understand that. I still would have preferred a bit more of a mix between longer and shorter pieces.

Mule continues their current tour tonight at the Smoky Run Music Festival in Butler, Ohio. This is followed by a series of dates in North Carolina, including Asheville (Jul 3), Charlotte (Jul 5), Greensboro (Jul 6) and Manteo (Jul 7). Then it’s on to Charlottesville, Va. (Jul 10) and Baltimore (Jul 11). The full schedule is, well, jam-packed and available here.

Sources: Wikipedia, Gov’t Mule website, YouTube

Gov’t Mule Rule With Powerful Pink Floyd Set

Southern jam rockers and Avett Brothers bring their summer tour to central NJ

When I told a good friend from Germany the other day that I was going to see Gov’t Mule for a Dark Side Of The Mule show, he had the same initial reaction I had a few weeks ago: What’s a southern rock band got to with Pink Floyd? And why would such distinguished musicians with plenty of own material devote an entire gig to the British psychedelic rockers? Well, because not only does Mule dig great music, but they also like to celebrate it during their own shows. In fact, they always have done so since they were founded in late 1994, though thus far, Pink Floyd is the only band to whom they dedicated an entire show.

As I previously wrote, Mule first introduced the concept in 2008 in Boston when they added a second set to their set of original tunes, which solely consisted of Floyd covers. They repeated it at the Mountain Jam music festival in 2015. And now the band is doing this dedicated show for the third time during a short co-headlining summer tour with The Avett Brothers – something I didn’t want to miss as a huge Pink Floyd fan, especially since one of gigs was happening right in my neck of the woods at PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel, N.J. last night. Based on Mule’s corresponding live album, my expectations were high – and boy did they deliver!

The Magpie Salute

But first things first. The evening was opened by American rock band The Magpie Salute, which was formed in October 2016 by guitarist Rich Robinson, a co-founding member of The Black Crowes. He pretty much co-wrote all of their songs with his brother and lead vocalist Chris Robinson. I didn’t know any of the band’s songs but liked what I heard. Their remaining current lineup includes two other former Black Crows members, Marc Ford (lead guitar, vocals) and Sven Pipien (bass, backing vocals), as well as John Hogg (vocals, percussion), Matt Slocum (keyboards) and Joe Magistro (drums). The Magpie Salute currently have one live album out from 2017 and are set to release their studio debut High Water I on August 18, 2018. I’ll definitely keep that on my radar screen.

The Avett Brothers
The Avett Brothers: (from left to right) Bob Crowford, Joe Kwon, Scott Avett and Seth Avett

Next came The Avett Brothers, a band that except for its name I hadn’t known. To get a sense of what to expect, I checked setlist.fm for the first date of the tour. It didn’t help much, since they made many changes to their set last night! The band’s core members include brothers and multi-instrumentalists Seth (vocals, guitar, etc.) and Scott Avett (vocals, banjo, etc.), Bob Crawford (double bass, bass, etc.) and Joe Kwon (backing vocals, cello, piano, etc.). The current touring lineup is complemented by Mike Marsh (drums) and Tania Elizabeth (violin, vocals, kazoo).

The origins of The Avett Brothers date back to the late 1990s when Seth’s high school band Margo combined with Scott’s college rock outfit Nemo. After Nemo had released three albums, Seth and Scott started The Avett Brothers as a side project, playing acoustic music with some friends. Eventually, this resulted in the release of an EP, The Avett Bros., in 2000. Their fist full-fledged studio album Country Was appeared in 2002. To date, the band has released eight additional studio records, three additional EPs and four live albums. I was impressed with the craftsmanship and warmth they used to deliver their music, which blends folk, bluegrass, Americana and indie rock. I didn’t record any video, but here’s a YouTube clip of a tune they did last night: Down With The Shine, from The Carpenter, their seventh studio album released in September 2012.

And then it was time for Mule to rule, and boy they certainly did! While like The Avett Brothers they mixed things up compared to the tour’s opening night, they kept the same format.

Gov't Mule 2018
Gov’t Mule (left to right): Danny Louis (keyboards), Matt Abts (drums), Jorgen Carlsson (bass) and Warren Haynes (guitar)

After kicking off their set with two original songs, it was on to mighty Pink Floyd. Last night, the original tunes included Thorazine Shuffle and Banks Of The Deep End, from the Dose (February 1998) and The Deep End, Vol. 1 (October 2001) studio albums, respectively. Here’s Thorazine Shuffle, a co-write by Mule co-founding members Warren Haynes and Matt Abts.

Following their two original songs, Mule launched into a transitional instrumental that blended into One Of These Days, from Meddle. Floyd’s sixth studio album from October 1971 happens to be one of my favorites. All for a sudden, it felt like the band had kicked up the intensity by a few notches. The song’s bass line came across like a furious jack hammer – since I didn’t anticipate it and didn’t want to start recording after it had started, unfortunately, I missed capturing that one.

After this powerful rendition of the first Pink Floyd tune of the night, Mule kept their foot on the gas. Next came Echoes, another gem from Meddle and perhaps my all-time favorite Floyd track. Again I didn’t record that one, figuring if my arms wouldn’t fall off holding my smartphone, the device would probably run low on battery power, given the length of the tune! Next it was on to a series of songs from Dark Side Of The Moon, my favorite Floyd album released in March 1973. Here’s The Great Gig In The Sky, featuring Mule’s outstanding backing vocalists

In addition to Dark Side Of Moon and Meddle, Mule also heavily drew from Wish You Were Here, another Floyd gem and the follow-on to Dark Side, which came out in September 1975. Here’s Welcome To The Machine.

Before playing some additional tunes from the Dark Side and Wish You Were Here albums, Mule threw in Nile Song from More, Floyd’s first soundtrack and their third studio release from June 1969. Then it was time for the cash register to ring with Money, another track from Dark Side. Again, I thought the band did a great job with the tune, especially the saxophonist who killed it!

The epic Shine On You Crazy Diamond (Parts I-V) rounded out Mule’s regular set. Like on the Dark Side Of The Mule album that I previously reviewed here, this was the track where the band took the most artistic freedom, especially Haynes on lead guitar. And just like on that record, I thought he did a nice job, so the deviations didn’t bother me at all. No Pink Floyd show would be complete without Wish You Were, which the band threw in as the encore.

As mentioned at the outset, I thought Mule’s show last night was outstanding. But, as I also noted before, Dark Side Of The Mule is not a note-by-note rendition of Floyd’s music. I imagine not all hard core Floyd fans may like the artistic freedom Mule occasionally takes. As a former hobby musician, I can fully appreciate that artists want to add a little bit of their own flavor when playing covers. If you feel the same and dig Pink Floyd, this show is for you, if you live in the right corners of the country. There are only four remaining dates: Xfinity Center, Mansfield, Mass. (today, Jul 14); Ruoff Home Mortgage Music Center, Noblesville, Ind. (Aug 23); Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre, Tinley Park, IL (Aug 24); and DTE Energy Music Theatre, Clarkston, MI (Aug 25). But there is always hope for additional dates, though Mule’s summer 2018 tour schedule looks dense through the second half of September.

Sources: Wikipedia, setlist.fm, Mule official website, YouTube

What I’ve Been Listening To: Gov’t Mule/Dark Side Of The Mule

What’s a Pink Floyd fan to do these days when they want to experience the band’s amazing music live? With the death of keyboarder Rick Wright in 2008 and their final studio album The Endless River from November 2014, Floyd’s officially gone. Yes, Roger Waters is currently on an extended Us + Them world tour. And, yes, David Gilmour released Live At Pompeii last September, which included Floyd material, and told Ultimate Classic Rock around that time that he’s planning a new album, which probably also means more touring. Still, it’s not the same!

Well, as the “king of the cover band” (Music Enthusiast’s previous kind words, not mine!) – one option I can highly recommend is Floyd tribute band Echoes. I saw these guys last year at the great Rock The Farm annual festival and wrote about it here. A second option I didn’t fully appreciate until recently is Gov’t Mule – yep, the southern rock jam band founded by Allman Brothers’ members Warren Haynes (guitar) and Allen Woody (bass) in 1994 to keep busy while the Brothers were off. Both ended up leaving the band to fully focus on Mule, though Haynes returned in 2000 and stayed with the Brothers until their final show in 2014. Woody passed away in 2000.

Gov't Mule 2018
Gov’t Mule’s current lineup (left to right): Danny Louis (keyboards), Matt Abts (drums), Jorgen Carlsson (bass) and Warren Haynes (guitar)

Haynes and Woody both were fond of 1960s power trios, such as Cream and The Jimi Hendrix Experience. Mule also digs many other artists like Neil Young, Free, Traffic, Little Feat and, well, Pink Floyd. What’s interesting to me is that with so much own material Mule has released over the years, they frequently have covered songs of the aforementioned artists during their sets. To date their homage to Pink Floyd certainly represents the climax in that regard. I know of no other such high caliber musicians who put together an entire set of covers from a band they obviously admire.

Dark Side Of The Mule (love that title!), which was released in December 2014 as a CD and deluxe CD/DVD set, was recorded during a three-hour gig at the Orpheum Theatre in Boston on Halloween 2008. While the standard CD edition only features the Floyd portion of the show, the enhanced deluxe version also includes original material Mule performed that night. Unlike the title suggests, their Pink Floyd set goes far beyond the Dark Side Of The Moon album. Time to get to some music!

The first tune I’d like to highlight is what I would call more of a deep cut: Fearless. Co-written by Gilmour and Waters, it appeared on Pink Floyd’s sixth studio album Meddle, released in October 1971. Haynes does a particularly nice job here, both in terms of his guitar work and the vocals.

Pigs On The Wing, Pt. 2 was written by Waters and included on Animals as the closer of that record from January 1977, Floyd’s 10th studio release. I think Mule’s version of the tune illustrates what’s also true for the entire set – while they stayed pretty close to the original tracks, they didn’t copy them 100%, which I find quite okay. After all, unlike Echoes, Mule is not a Floyd tribute band.

Shine On You Crazy Diamond (Parts I-V) is one of the tunes where Mule takes a bit more artistic freedom, especially Haynes. While I really dig Gilmour’s guitar parts on the original, I have to say I also like what Haynes is playing here. The opener of Wish You Were Here, Floyd’s ninth studio effort from September 1975, was credited to Gilmour, Wright and Waters. It remains one of my all-time favorite Floyd tracks after having listened to the band for some 40 years.

Next up: Time from the epic Dark Side Of The Moon, my favorite Pink Floyd album, which appeared in March 1973. The song was credited to all members of the band, which apart from Gilmour, Waters and Wright also included drummer Nick Mason. BTW, one of the backing vocalists Mule had, Durga McBroom, also consistently served in that capacity during Floyd’s live shows starting from November 1987, as well as on The Division Bell and The Endless River studio records.

Another track I’d like to call out is Comfortably Numb, one of my favorite tunes from 1979’s The Wall album. Co-written by Waters and Gilmour, it’s one of the relatively few songs that are not solely credited to Waters who clearly was the dominant force on the record. Again, Haynes does a great job, both vocally and playing Gilmour’s guitar parts.

The last song I’d like to highlight is the title track from the Wish You Were Here album.  No Pink Floyd set would be complete without the song, which was yet another Waters-Gilmour co-write.

To date, Mule only played one additional Floyd set, which was during the Mountain Jam music festival in June 2015. But a third Dark Side Of The Mule performance is coming up. In March, the band announced that they are joining forces with The Avett Brothers for six co-headlining summer open air gigs. The dates include Jones Beach Theater, Wantagh, N.Y. (Jul 12); PNC Bank Arts Center, Holmdel, N.J. (Jul 13); Xfinity Center, Mansfield, Mass. (Jul 14); Ruoff Home Mortgage Music Center, Noblesville, Ind. (Aug 23); Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre, Tinley Park, IL (Aug 24); and DTE Energy Music Theatre, Clarkston, MI (Aug 25).

One of these shows is happening right in my backyard. Based on Ticketmaster, prices look relatively reasonable. Plus, I’ve been to PNC Bank Arts Center many times and like this venue. All of these facts are impossible to ignore, so needless to say that I’m very tempted. Since I’m already seeing Steely Dan & The Doobie Brothers (July 7) and Neil Young solo (July 11), adding Mule would make this a pretty intense back-to-back music experience. But is there such a thing as too much rock & roll, and don’t make three a charm? We’ll see.

Sources: Wikipedia, Roger Waters official website, Ultimate Classic Rock, Echoes official website, Gov’t Mule official website, YouTube

Clips & Pix: Gregg Allman/Just Another Rider

Today is the first anniversary of Allman’s death

Hard to believe it’s already been one year since Gregg Allman passed away at the age of 69. The above clip, which is perhaps the best in-studio footage I know, is a great illustration what an exceptional artist Allman was. Also, take a close look at the fantastic musicians who backed him and how they are grooving along – it’s the impersonation of true craftsmanship and beautiful soul!

Co-written by Allman and Warren Haynes, long-time guitarist for The Allman Brothers Band and a co-founding member of Gov’t Mule, Just Another Rider appeared on Allman’s excellent seventh studio album Low Country Blues. It was his second-to-last studio record and the last to be released during his lifetime.

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube