“Getting Away with Murder”: Gov’t Mule as a Countercultural Model of Excellence

Gov’t Mule live at the Leverkusener Jazztage Germany 2017. Photo: Andreas Lawen, Fotandi. CC BY-SA 4.0.

Bruce Springsteen quipped that “talking about music is like talking about sex. It’s better when demonstrated.” Gov’t Mule, the legendary band of the rock and roll jam world, has given ample demonstration of its musical power and prowess, and in the spirit of Springsteen’s accurate joke, any verbal or literary description of the live Mule experience will fall short of the intensity and virtuosity with which the band dazzles its audiences. Because he alone is such a musical act of nature, it is often tempting to narrow one’s concentration on Gov’t Mule founder, singer/songwriter, and lead guitarist, Warren Haynes. While Haynes and late bassist Allen Woody were in the Allman Brother Band in the 1990s, they aspired to resurrect the power trio in contemporary rock, citing Cream, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, and Led Zeppelin, which qualified on the technicality that singer Robert Plant never played an instrument, as main sources of inspiration. Expecting the “side project” to record one album, and complete a single tour, they were as surprised as anyone to keep the Mule kicking into clubs and theaters for decades, even after Woody’s sudden death in 2000. As they now celebrate 28 years of making extraordinary music, Haynes shows no sign of relenting. At their August 19th performance in Fishers, Indiana, Haynes was primal – threatening to demolish nearby real estate with guitar solos that steadily gained aggression like a supercell storm system settling over the Dakota badlands, and pelting the crowd with his growling and shouting vocals. The explosive energy of Haynes is deceptive, because far from instinctual alone, it emanates out of a commitment to excellence and craft, and requires an intellectual awareness of intent and effect. Allen Ginsberg claimed that the masterful poet should have the ability to translate the heart through the mechanism of the head without taking a breath. It becomes natural – so it seemed for Haynes on a summer night outside of Indianapolis.

It is important to resist the temptation of reducing Mule to its leader. The chemistry and dexterity of the band, along with its unique, aesthetic sweet spot between heavy jam rock and soul-jazz, is a collective creation. Mule’s newest member, bassist Jorgen Carlsson, who joined in 2008, plays grooves as eccentric as Chris Squire and as thunderous as Lemmy Kilmister. Carlsson might have summarized Mule’s musical approach best when he called it, “Rock and roll according to a jazz formula.” Danny Louis stirs another critical ingredient into the mix: A keyboard that he once told me is “Deep Purple meets ‘Bitches Brew.’” Louis is also a utility player, picking up the rhythm guitar on occasion, and even the trombone. At some point during every live Mule show, Haynes will shout out like a preacher making an altar call, “Matt Abts on the drums!” The other surviving founder of Mule, Abts can play with the muscular simplicity of AC/DC’s Phil Rudd, but also throw in fills that sound as if they came from Dave Brubeck’s Time Out.

During one of my interviews with Abts and Haynes, I asked how they deal with the thorny but inevitable question of genre. While they acknowledged that they are a “jam band,” they also insisted that they are a “rock and roll band.” Abts was particularly insistent that there is improvisation with Mule, but not “noodling.” “We have actual songs,” he said. Haynes said that while all the labels they’ve seen have some applicability – “hard rock,” “jam rock,” “blues rock,” “Southern rock” – none of them quite fit. Rather than tailor one of the already existing suits, Mule has crafted something of its own. It is best to merely call their music, “Mule’s music,” and leave it at that. Almost their own genre, Haynes said that they try to take a cue from Miles Davis, who he described as inventing new forms, confusing and frustrating critics. “By the time everyone caught up to what Miles was doing,” Haynes said, “and started praising it, he was moving onto something else.”

Another obvious element in Mule’s equation is the Grateful Dead. Although much more of a rock band, and much heavier, than the Dead, improvisation is important, and Jerry Garcia’s influence is audible. Haynes even toured with Dead and Company in 2013 and ’14, taking on Garcia’s role. When The Grateful Dead became an unlikely stadium band in the 1980s, Jerry Garcia offered the best theory to explain their newfound commercial success: “We represent an alternative reality for large numbers of people disenchanted with the passionless, lame America.”

While Gov’t Mule hasn’t reached the level of The Grateful Dead’s success (few do), they do have a large and loyal following, helping them to sell out most shows in venues like the Beacon Theatre of New York, the Orpheum Theater in New Orleans, and on August 19th, the Nickel Plate District Amphitheater in Fishers, Indiana. “We used to come around here and play at a place called ‘The Vogue,’” Haynes said toward the end of the night in reference to the music club in Bloomington, Indiana, home of Indiana University. When he asked how many were there, cheers scattered throughout the crowd. It is impossible to gauge the honesty of people yelling in unison, but Mule’s base of fans trade stories of performances like young boys with baseball cards, and follow setlists of each tour, as they attend show after show, to the extent that Haynes carefully considers each night’s setlist according to songs played not only at previous concerts on the tour, but previous concerts in that night’s host city dating back several years.

Radically altering the setlist from night to night and stretching jams out over 15 minutes is standard operating procedure for Gov’t Mule. Also part of the regular formula is releasing albums like their latest, Heavy Load Blues, which includes songs like the Haynes original, “If Heartaches Were Nickels” – a slow burning soul blues song that breaks out into a “Moondance”-like jazzy jam in the middle – and their ten minute Sun Records meets Black Sabbath rendition of Howlin’ Wolf’s “I Asked Her for Water.”

The first time I interviewed Haynes was when the band was promoting the release of a boxset containing shows from one of their first tours. Reflecting on two decades of musical excellence and popularity without any help from MTV, corporate rock radio, television commercials, or anything in the flat, unflavored mainstream of US culture, Haynes said the following: “We’ve blindly and luckily been able to do what we thought was best for us — from a musical and personal standpoint. We’ve never second guessed our decisions based on the audience or the commercial demands of the music business. We consider ourselves getting away with murder. Everything we do is uncompromised. We’ve done that from the beginning, and to whatever extent it is working, we are creating an audience of likeminded people. I think there is a need for that, but regardless, it is what we need.”

The kinship between independent-minded, self-willed artists and their audiences grows stronger as commercial fixations devour every aspect of American cultural life. Art and commerce have always maintained a necessary, if often fraught, relationship. Gov’t Mule cannot travel the country for free, and therefore their fans can’t watch them play for free. No one expects a great musician to take a vow of poverty. The musical giants Haynes cites as inspirational – Miles Davis, Jerry Garcia, Jimi Hendrix, et. al. – also enjoyed financial prosperity, but they never gave their fans or critics the idea that they were soulless avatars of profit extraction. Jay Z rapped as a boast, without a hint of irony, “I’m not a businessman / I’m a business, man.” His brethren in hip hop and pop have made product placement, television advertisement licensing, and “brand” promotion so routine that it no longer seems to embarrass anyone. John Legend appears in a commercial serenading vegetables, Lil Nas X dances with a bottle of vitamin water, and Taylor Swift brandishes her cardigan collection on behalf of Capitol One. Young pop stars have learned from the best: The Rolling Stones, U2, and Madonna began lending their songs to ads for big pharma pills, investment firms, and Silicon Valley behemoths long ago. For decades Springsteen rejected multimillion dollar offers to allow his songs to play in commercials. Last year he imitated Clint Eastwood in an ad for Jeep, driving around a Kansas small town, stopping in a church to pray for the future of America. The jokes write themselves.

At least when Springsteen, the Stones, and the “Material Girl” wrote their songs they were not planning for commercial license. Sources now report that the state of the record industry, radio, and other traditional means of promotion have fallen to such unstable depths that many young songwriters and bands compose music with the intention of commercial placement. Even if it is a longshot, it is their best hope for wealth. “Selling out,” as Douglas Rushkoff showed in his documentary on young Americans’ relationship with multinational corporations, social media, and mass marketing, no longer has meaning. Most of his interview subjects interpreted the phrase as laudatory: “Congratulations on selling out!”

It is hardly a surprise that pop hits now sound exactly like commercial jingles – using a looped beat ad nauseam, repeating the same phrase over and over, and rapping or singing lyrics that more closely resemble slogans than poetry. It is only a matter of time before some enterprising pop or hip hop performer samples, “By Mennen!”

It doesn’t take an advanced degree in musicology to detect how the most popular songs of any genre now sound almost exactly alike. In 2015, a YouTube user created a “mashup”of that year’s six biggest country hits. They overlapped perfectly, proving that they had the same rhythm pattern, the same structure, and similar melodies. Boredom, redundancy, frivolity, and transformation of musician into pitchman are predictable travesties of unbridled consumerism and endless corporate consolidation. Warren Haynes wasn’t off the mark when he likened Gov’t Mule’s longevity in the contemporary music climate to “getting away with murder.”

And who knew murder could sound so good?

Albert Camus wrote in The Rebel that every act of rebellion is not only in opposition to something, but also affirmative of countervalues. A phrase that doesn’t appear much anymore in arts criticism or newspapers is “counterculture.” When Gov’t Mule performed in Fishers, Indiana, they were committing an act of artistic violence against the emptyheaded avarice and vapid priorities of the mainline music industry and broader entertainment world. As Camus would appreciate, they too were advancing their own vision of a counterculture.

The Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers Band established a jam band tradition of playing two sets – the second much more experimental and improvisational than the first. Haynes has explained that this is not merely a creative choice, but a method of necessity. For a band to explore its musical limits, seek new territory without a map, and engage in spontaneous composition, it must reach a level of a comfort that allows for loose interplay. The first set works the musical muscles, taking the instrumentalist from the quiet of the last pre-show moments to the adrenaline rush of live performance. Gov’t Mule opened its August 19th show with two of its more straightforward rock and roll protest songs. “Mr. Man” shot the band out of a cannon with Haynes shouting, “Better get ready!” Its raucous and angry energy, bringing the crowd to its feet, originated as defiant condemnation of the Iraq War and President George W. Bush. The same imperious president was the partial inspiration for the night’s second song, “Mr. High and Mighty,” a Free-like rocker with a power chord riff about how the arrogance of wealth and power so often manifests in cruelty toward everyday people. Mule closed the first set with “Stone Cold Rage,” an intense and equally aggressive hard rock song from 2016, lamenting the danger of the far right movement coalescing around Donald Trump.

In between the opening numbers and “Stone Cold Rage,” Gov’t Mule lit the crowd afire, seemingly aiming to prove why Metallica’s rhythm guitarist and lead singer, James Hetfield, along with Metallica alum, bassist Jason Newsted, have often cited Mule as their favorite band.

 They even played “Drivin’ Rain,” a hard pounding original that in its recorded version features shared vocals from Hetfield. Haynes might sing like BB King, but the band backing him plays with a weight uncommon in the jam world. Abts’ ballistic drumming and Carlsson’s bottom end lower such a crush, particularly when paired with Paige-like riffs from Haynes, that it is an astonishing trip to follow Haynes’ voice as he screams and snarls through each song. Danny Louis’ keyboard injects a psychedelic effect, almost as if he is trying to pull all the weight of Mule’s heavy cargo into outer space. Mule’s unique proximity to early heavy metal once led Haynes to deem his band the “black sheep of jam.”

The spacey odyssey commenced in the first set with “Thorns of Life,” a song from Mule’s 2016 record, Revolution Come…Revolution Go. Carlsson, Louis, and Haynes’ exchange sounded like something Miles Davis would have orchestrated, and whenever the song would seem to reach a crescendo in its 11 minute journey, with Haynes shouting to an unnamed object of affection, “Dying inside ‘til I feel you / Burning on my skin…”, it would suddenly land again, deconstructing into a crawl through an emotional mystery. Preceding “Thorns of Life” was the set’s only cover – a soulful version of “Ain’t No Love in the Heart of the City,” which appears on the newest Mule record, Heavy Load Blues. Offering a glimpse into the playful fury of the second set was “Broke Down on the Brazos,” a Texas-blues rock and roll song that with a turn of Haynes’ conductor hand morphed into “Tributary Jam,” an organ-led, jazzy vamp. The pairing sounded like what ZZ Top and Jimmy Smith might conceive if they spent all night together in a smoky club outside of Houston.

With the second set of Mule’s performance, Fishers, the mid-sized town outside of Indianapolis, could have been Houston. It could have been New Orleans or New York or Chicago or some city still undiscovered. There was no musical or aesthetic border that Mule would honor in their exploratory and imaginative trek through various iterations of timeless music. Creative writing professors are fond of telling their students, “You have to understand the rules to know when and why you should break them.” The freewheeling nature of Mule’s music bears resemblance to the poetry of Walt Whitman, the painting of Jackson Pollock, and the fusion of Miles Davis. It is only through a mastery of craft and appreciation of tradition that the artist can flirt with the avant garde. The free verse of Whitman, and later Ginsburg, disguises a sophisticated comprehension of meter, structure, and rhythm. The abstract quality of a Pollock painting derived only from painstaking knowledge of design principles. True invention and genuine stylistic singularity often comes from the moment when the intellectual is made instinctual. Gov’t Mule’s best moments, like those of other great jazz and jam bands, occur when the audience realizes that they are witnessing not merely the playing, but making of music. There is a sweet spot between intention, which demands technical excellence, and improvisation, which demands the imaginative boldness to push beyond the conventions of the form, but also the culture, especially its commercial restraints.

Gov’t Mule opened their second set with one of their concert staples, “Larger Than Life.” Chronicling how “death is larger than life,” the song explodes into Zeppelin-informed animation with Haynes shredding on his guitar and Abts breathlessly beating his small drum kit. The rendition seemed typical until without a moment’s notice, Haynes’ guitar solo shifted into the opening riff of Jimi Hendrix’s classic, “If 6 Was 9.” As the band powered through the Hendrix cover, it seemed as if Haynes and company were channeling the best of dark and psychedelic rock and roll. The intensity steadily escalated, but not without control. One never suspects that the band is showing off. Haynes takes merciful breaths in his guitar playing, enabling him to draw out phrases and maintain soulful humanity in the presentation. The human touch was palpable when “If 6 Was 9” collapsed into an ominous drum beat with Haynes and Carlsson trading riffs and licks, and Louis adding an eerie background ambience. Then it built back into “Larger Than Life,” culminating in Haynes shouting the title phrase. Length plays a pivotal role in the artistry of the jam band. Ted Gioia has discovered through his research that ten minutes is necessary to induce a “trance effect” in the music listener. A three or four minute song fails to dramatically alter the mood in the same way of an extended performance. Skill is essential for the creation of variety over a ten minute period. In the “Larger Than Life”—”If 6 Was 9” medley, they told a story with the aid of words, but the drama and emotive concentration of the music became even more revelatory. It acted as a heart threatening thesis on mortality.

After a run through their moving ballad, “No Need to Suffer,” erupting into simultaneous solos from Haynes and Carlsson, the dark but trippy energy returned with “Trane,” an instrumental rock jam from Mule’s debut record. Paying tribute to John Coltrane, the song uses speed and solo variety to stretch the limits of chordal and modal structure, while transporting the listener’s mind to dimensions both odd and exciting. If Metallica somehow smashed into “My Favorite Things,” the dynamic entity would resemble Mule’s “Trane.” Not content to leave the audience with their own original composition on the fly, Mule blended “Trane” into a muscular rendition of Sly and the Family Stone’s instrumental jam, “Sex Machine.” The segue way happened in an instant – almost as quickly and smoothly as Mule transformed “Sex Machine” into “St. Stephen Jam.” The crowd cheered at the first recognizable notes of the Grateful Dead number. As Mule quickened the tempo on “St. Stephen,” the roars grew louder. The “Trane—Sex Machine—St. Stephen Jam” trio met the classic standard of a suite. The three songs enjoyed tonal links, but retained their distinct characteristics. Unlike the typical suite, Mule’s navigated the proximity between hard rock and jazz, giving aural survey of an unpredictable musical geography.

Later in the set a cover of Savoy Brown’s blues exercise in pavement poetry, “Street Corner Talking,” had Mule giving twelve-minute testimony to blue collar hardship. While bending distorted notes in the style of Hendrix, Haynes shouted out Kim Simmonds’ lyrics like a man pleading for his life: “It’s the same / What a shame / No matter where you go…” He and Abts teased Hendrix’s “Machine Gun,” and confronted the audience with a question: “Street corner talkin’ / Tell me what you’re gonna do…”

It sounded like a challenge, especially with the American flag flying off the stage directly in front of a library. Inside that library there were books on advertising, mass media, and algorithms, but there were also books by Albert Murray, Ellen Willis, and Dave Hickey. The final song of the second set acted as an arrow, pointing the audience in the right direction. A bona fide Mule classic, “Thorazine Shuffle,” is a song that Haynes often says is about “being uninhibited.” Beginning with a hypnotic bassline, the song immediately moves the feet according to its title’s inspiration. It has an odd time signature groove, equal parts “Whipping Post” and “Take Five,” funky solos from Haynes, psychedelic keyboard vamps, and multiple key changes.

One of the most pervasive consequences of allowing marketing calculations and social media algorithms to dictate art and entertainment is mediocrity. A bland, flat affect soon comes to dominate whatever derivative songs, films, and novels begin to triumph on the charts. Gov’t Mule delivers the satisfaction and hope that an alternative is possible.

Before Matt Abts closed “Thorazine Shuffle” with a drum solo slicing through each vamp, Haynes repeated the lyric, “Stand right back and watch me now / I’ll show you how it’s done..”

It was a promise they already kept.

David Masciotra is the author of five books, including Mellencamp: American Troubadour (University Press of Kentucky, 2015) and I Am Somebody: Why Jesse Jackson Matters (Bloomsbury, 2020).