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The Sounds from Outside
Sitting here in the eight-by-ten of American pop culture, surrounded by the walls of kiddy-pop and lifeless, copycat grunge bands, sounds of life and redemption from beyond the cold, gray concrete of music industry confinement is a treasured commodity. Carried upon the whistle blows and chug chug of the freedom train that rides the rails just outside the gates comes the latest album from Gov't Mule called "The Deep End, Vol. 1". This album is an adventure in "people music" from the men who have the balls to make rock and roll the way it should be made - from the heart and soul instead of the bank account. Warren Haynes and Matt Abts are the engineers of this freedom train with a collection of amazing musicians in the "fancy dining car, drinkin' lots of whiskey and smokin' big cigars."
Mr. Haynes and Mr. Abts are the surviving members of the Cream-like power trio whose bass player, Allen Woody, died suddenly last fall. Since then, the two have been struggling with the hard question of whether or not to continue the adventure. The answer came in the form of a tribute album "dedicated to our lost brother Allen Woody whose presence is felt in every note." To fill in the bass part, Haynes and Abts recruited some of the greatest bass players in the world. However, their recruiting efforts proved so successful, they were delightedly forced to begin production on a second volume. Try to imagine what it must feel like to get twenty-five of the world's greatest bass players including Cream's Jack Bruce, The Who's John Entwistle, The Red Hot Chili Peppers' Flea, George Clinton's Parliamentary and Funkadelic bassist extraordinaire Bootsie Collins; who all want to throw down with you. Now, add keyboardist Chuck Leavell (most widely know for playing piano on Eric Clapton's "Unplugged" album) and great organists like Greg Allman, Bernie Worrell, Phish's Page McConnell, and Eddie Harsch. And just to top it all off, include jazz guitarist John Scofield, and legendary blues man Little Milton and you've got the reality of "The Deep End".
The first passenger car on the "Deep End" freedom train is crowded with such musical luminaries. Kicking off the thirteen songs of the first volume is a rockin' anthem called "Fool's Moon" featuring Jack Bruce on bass and vocals, and Bernie Worrell on organ. This song is head banging happiness that revisits the chord crunching power of Cream. "Fool's Moon" certainly sets the pace and energy of the entire album, but it does not begin a formulaic and predictable musical journey. Each song thereafter is surprisingly fresh and unique - a condition, no doubt, due to the variation in musicians from song to song. For evidence, one need not listen further than the second song, the funky blues-rock tune "Life on the Outside", with Sly and the Family Stone's bassist Larry Graham, guitarist Audley Freed and organist Eddie Harsch.
Heart-pounding and soulful sentiments pulse over the rails on a freight train of rock and roll that hasn't been very prominent over the past ten years or so. "The Deep End" travels through various stations of style, picking up its diverse musical passengers, but it continues on the heavy blues-rock track laid down by Gov't Mule in the 90's. Consider, for instance, "Down and Out in New York City", featuring Flea on bass. The song has a definite New York City groove with a kicking horn section and Rob Barraco's organ work, but Warren Haynes' guitar and Matt Abts' drums keep the song anchored to the purely Mule sound. Obvious influences on the "Mule sound" are explored on Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Effigy", and Deep Purple's "Maybe I'm a Leo". "Effigy" is a haunting highlight of this album and includes Mike Watt on bass and Jerry Cantrell laying down an Alice in Chains-style backing vocal behind Warren Haynes' bluesy, gravelly, masculine voice. "Maybe I'm a Leo" remains true to its early 70s, pre-metal, post-Black Sabbath heavy rock and roll intentions with help from bassist Roger Glover from Deep Purple, and organist Randall Bramblett.
Pure blues might be the greatest and most easily identifiable influence on Mr. Haynes' songwriting. Just as 1960s bands like Led Zeppelin, Cream, The Who, and The Allman Brothers Band, Warren and his two Gov't Mule pals have reached down to the bedrock of the blues and reformed it into the clay and soil of a dirtier - but just as potent - blues-rock style. "Soulshine" stands as a torch song example of this blues retooling, and has been a traveling companion for Warren Haynes since it was first recorded for the Allman Brothers' album "Where It All Begins". For "The Deep End", they were able to get a hold of the talents of Aretha Franklin's bass player, Willie Weeks, Chuck Leavell on organ and Wurlitzer, and the great Little Milton to trade blues guitar blazes with Warren. Another foray into the blues is a collaboration with Warren's buddies from the Allman Brothers Band. Greg Allman, Oteil Burbidge and Derek Trucks climbed aboard for "Worried Down with the Blues."
Further showcasing Gov't Mule's diversity of style and depth of complexity are two of the funkiest songs on the album. First is "Sco-Mule", a groovy, jazzy instrumental song that brings together bass man Chris Wood from the innovative funk and jazz group Medeski, Martin and Wood, Bernie Worrell on organ, and the great jazz guitarist John Scofield. Sitting with Bernie Worrell up in Funk Class is the ever-funky Bootsie Collins who lends his bownt-chica-chica-bownt-bownt bass style and voice to "Tear Me Down". Bernie and Bootsie tear it up on this tune and elevate it beyond the mere convention of rock up to the mother ship stratosphere of down and dirty funk.
The world-class musicians who got on board for "The Deep End" seem to validate the talent and music of Gov't Mule's Warren Haynes, Matt Abts and the late Allen Woody. The final stop on the journey, entitled "Sin's a Good Man's Brother", was recorded by Mule before Mr. Woody passed on, and it proves that his talents were worthy of a status equal to these legends. More than just a showcase of bass players, though, "The Deep End" is a collection of truly amazing songs and lyrics - the perfect vehicle for such great musicianship. However, trying to pick out the highlights of the album for discussion is difficult because, honestly, each of the thirteen tunes is incredibly well crafted and mind blowing. "The Deep End" is the kind of album that one hopes will come barreling through the terrible walls of this cultural prison and set us all free.
NOTES TO THE MASSES: Sometimes I wonder what it would have been like to be alive when a great album was first released. For example, what was it like to listen to Cream's "Disraeli Gears" or The Beatles' "Rubber Soul" when it was introduced to the world - before hearing nearly three decades' worth of praise and retrospection? After listening to "The Deep End", I think my curiosity has been satisfied. I truly feel fortunate to hear an album that I hope will be set upon the shelf with some of the greatest rock albums of all time. I'm not just blowing smoke here. Let me just add this: I've had the pleasure of briefly meeting Warren Haynes twice - once, to thank him and Allen Woody for a great show with the Allman Brothers back in '96, and again to thank him and Matt for the great show in Charlottesville, VA, just about a year ago (see "That's My Fuckin' Mule!" in the Long Haired Logic collection). From those brief encounters, I got a distinct sense that these guys are very down to Earth and humble men, which makes me feel quite happy for them that they have enjoyed the great good fortune of working with some of the most admired musicians around to produce such an terrific album. So, Mr. Haynes and Mr. Abts, if you ever get a chance to read this, congratulations and thank you for some great fuckin' music.
"The Deep End, Volume 1" is available from ATO Records Inc., and was released on October 23, 2001. Volume 2 is expected to be released in the spring of 2002, while a documentary about the recording sessions called "On the Banks of the Deep End", directed by Phish bassist Mike Gordon, is set for release this coming winter. The song "Life on the Outside" is slated to hit radio airwaves across America on October 29, 2001, so make sure you "gotch yer' ears on."
content copyright 2001 the author
visual art copyright 2001skewed perspective