The career of Warren Haynes began years before the songwriter, singer, and guitarist formed Gov’t Mule, and even before he joined The Allman Brothers Band for its 1989 reunion tour. By then, Haynes already had done a stint in the solo outfit of Brothers legend, Dickey Betts, and had been a fixture in the songwriting and session-musician communities of Nashville. Yet, no matter how long Haynes had been doing the work, he always seemed somewhat like a fresh-faced up-and-comer honoring the music of his elders.
In the mid-‘90s, when he ventured out with bassist Allen Woody and drummer Matt Abts and assembled Gov’t Mule, the trio felt vibrant and ambitious, cooking up a potent blend of classic influences and youthful energy. Mule built a reputation for injecting the improvisational freedom of John Coltrane and the darker undercurrent of Black Sabbath into its original repertoire and into the eternal spirit of the blues. Haynes, as he bounced between successful Mule and Allman albums and tours for the next decade, grew in his experience and skill as a writer, performer, producer, and leader. Now, 25 years after forming Mule, the now-quartet- with bassist Jorgen Carlsson and keyboardist Danny Louis- goes back to where it all began on Heavy Load Blues, an album completely devoted to the foundational genre. With it, too, comes the culmination of Haynes, the record’s co-producer, as a thoroughly accomplished man of letters; from student and scholar of the blues to PhD.
The 13 tracks, recorded live in the studio, alternate between Haynes originals and genre-spanning covers, nodding to, among others, Tom Waits (“Make it Rain”), Howlin’ Wolf (“I Asked Her For Water (She Gave Me Gasoline)”), and Junior Wells (“Snatch It Back and Hold It”). Those three echo the comprehensively eclectic nature of the whole record, paying homage to the idiom’s evolution: from stripped-bare Delta blues, Post-War Chicago shuffles, and ‘60s brassy soul, to mid-‘70s groove and beyond. It’s on the Wells cut that the Mule best meld the two sides of the same coin, dropping in an extended, spontaneous jam- its own “Hold It Back”- into the middle of the funk; imagined just as easily slotted into one of the quartet’s nightly setlists.
The simplicity of the blues has always been its trap, and done without nuance and respect, the familiar patterns and hard-luck poetry ring hollow. With Heavy Load Blues, Haynes and his Mule mates have earned the genuine honor, and privilege, of calling themselves bluesmen. Rather, they let the music do the talking.