“The last few years I’ve been at home a lot more than normal. So, it was strange to be back to work in the beginning, but it’s starting to feel normal again,” said Warren Haynes as he reflected on returning to a full tour schedule after the COVID break kept him and Gov’t Mule off the road.
His answer comes during an interview that takes place in the midst of a family vacation. A few days prior, Haynes finished his summer tour; a combination of headlining shows, festival dates, interpretations of Pink Floyd’s catalog on the Dark Side of the Mule tour plus appearances on Willie Nelson’s Outlaw Music Festival.
A couple weeks after our conversation and he’s back to his “normal” work life – fall concert dates that include the United States, Canada and Europe. By the end of the year, they will total a Mule-standard of 60 concerts.
The quartet continues to reap what the members sowed two years ago during the worldwide pandemic. Haynes, drummer Matt Abts, keyboardist Danny Louis and bassist Jorgen Carlsson (replaced last June by Kevin Scott) recorded in two separate studios with completely different instrumental setups to create a pair of very different releases.
The Grammy-nominated 2021 release, Heavy Load Blues featured a selection of originals and covers that included legendary artists — Howlin’ Wolf, Elmore James, Junior Wells, Sonny Boy Williamson, Muddy Waters, and Otis Rush, Ann Peebles and Bobby “Blue” Bland – plus outside-the-box choices—Tom Waits, the Animals and Savoy Brown—for a long-discussed but perpetually-shelved blues-focussed album.
Out earlier this year, Peace…Like a River expands on the band’s classic heavy rock sound and jamming ways with orchestrations and horn arrangements in what may be Mule’s best album in its nearly 30-year career.
During our conversation we discussed the new album, touring, the positive side of the pandemic break, European audiences, Island Exodus 14 and what’s ahead for the hard-working act.
JPG: Let’s start with the Dark Side of the Mule dates. You recently finished that tour. The 50th anniversary of the Dark Side album. Was the timing too good to resist not touring behind that?
WH: That was a good reason to do it one more time. We thought we had retired it but it was brought up to do it one more time. And then, with the 50th anniversary of Dark Side of the Moon it made sense to coincide those things.
JPG: When you’re playing as Gov’t Mule the four of you can switch things up because you’ve played together long enough that I’m sure there’s a high degree of musical telepathy. Did having additional players for the Dark Side set require you to be a little more rigid or were you able to move around that?
WH: What we were doing on this tour was when Jason Bonham’s Led Zeppelin Evening was opening, they would do an hour and then we would do one long set, which consisted of an hour of Mule and 90 minutes of Floyd. We would do the hour of Mule just as a four-piece, and then when we started doing what we call the Dark Side stuff, the size of the band would double.
The setlist for the Mule songs was different every night, but the setlist for the Floyd songs only varied by five or six numbers. So, that part of the show was more regimented than normal, but we would do an hour of full-on crazy Mule prior.
There were three where Jason Bonham was not on the shows, and so we would do two long sets, which was really fun. But, it was still doing both things but, as you mentioned, it is a little more regimented when it’s when we’re just doing the Dark Side.
JPG: Some of the people that that were with you, like Ron Holloway, you’ve worked with before. So, I’m sure, if you veer left, he’d veer left along with you and he won’t need to that far ahead of time.
WH: And Jackie Greene as well.
JPG: Oh, yes!
WH: And we actually loosened up the approach to the Dark Side stuff a little more for this tour and made it a little more flexible and a little more improv-oriented, but we still want to honor the original versions. So, it was kind of a song-by-song decision.
JPG: What draws you to Pink Floyd? Is it just the music or is it David Gilmour as a guitarist or something else?
WH: The whole thing came about by accident. We never went into it thinking we were gonna do this more than once. In 2008 we did what we always do for Halloween, which is do one set of Gov’t Mule and one set of something else, and the something else for the 2008 show was Pink Floyd, the same way that we had done Led Zeppelin and Hendrix and Neil Young, and we did Who’s Next one year. Recently, we did Black Sabbath. We always do a thematic show on Halloween. We’ve done a ton of different ones, and any of those could have caught fire. It wasn’t like we planned on doing anything past the normal Halloween show.
The only difference was for the 2008 show, we brought in a laser show. We brought in surround sound, and we brought in additional musicians and background singers. So it turned into more of a production. The audience really picked up on it and connected with it and started demanding in their own encouraging way that we do it again. So, it was never something we intended to do it; just came about organically.
I love that music in the same way that I love all the other things that I mentioned. I could give you 20 other bands that I connected with in a similar way. This one just happened to, organically, turn into us doing it more than once, which was bizarre and different for me and for the band as well. It’s not something we ever thought we would do.
JPG: For me my music lessons in life came about from what I heard on the radio from grade school onwards and just spread out from there to what I read about in magazines or watched on TV. In your case was it older siblings? Specific radio stations? Friends? It seems like our musical backgrounds are similar as far as listening to wide range that includes classic rock, Soul, Blues, reggae, punk, alternative…
WH: I had two older brothers that both, still, are big music fans and have great taste in music. When I was growing up, they force-fed me tons of great music to listen to, and they were also record collectors. One of my brothers, in particular, went on to open a record store and still does that to this day. So, my house, growing up, there were thousands of albums available for me to check out and every genre of music. That was something that really helped shape my open-mindedness as a musician from the very beginning.
JPG: What’s the record store your brother owns?
WH: For decades, it was called Almost Blue in Asheville. Then, they shut it down and retired it for a long time. Now, they’ve reopened and it’s called Records in the Rad, which is the River Arts District in Asheville.