Photos by Dino Perrucci
For over a century and a half, Central Park has been a recreational retreat for New Yorkers and tourists alike, providing a place and space for marathon trainers, picnickers, cyclists, artists, yogis, tourists, foodies, ice skaters and photographers to dive into their leisure of choice. Music lovers are not excluded from the great metropolitan green’s abundant benefits, and on May 17th, concert goers gathered at Central Park SummerStage for a double-bill featuring two of the jam scene’s premiere live acts, Gov’t Mule and the Chris Robinson Brotherhood. Both bands showcased some of their finest songs as well as new material. The evening also marked Gov’t Mule’s 2000th show, a historic night celebrated with quite the mid-week jam-a-thon and plenty of guest appearances, including John McClane himself, actor Bruce Willis.
The CRB took the stage around 6:00 PM, and while sunset came with hot and muggy weather, the band set came with cool and breezy music. The psychedelic-centric group kicked off the evening’s festivities with the cosmic swing and sway of “New Cannonball Rag,” followed by the hypnotic march of “Tomorrow Blues” and the neon-glow of “Ain’t it Hard But Fair.” Like many CRB songs, Tony Leone’s laidback drumming, Jeff Hill’s bubbling, bouncing bottom and Chris Robinson’s loose guitar rhythms served as a foundation for Adam MacDougall’s weird, warbly and wandering keyboard work, Neal Casal’s ethereal guitar solos, and Chris Robinson’s from-the-gut vocals.
A pair of new songs off of their upcoming release Barefoot in the Head followed the familiar: the funkified rock and soul of “Behold the Seer” (capped off with an impressive harmonica coda from the band’s namesake) and “Blue Star Woman,” which started off as a rickety blues-meets-jazz rocker but soon transcended to genre-defying heights during an improvisational jam segment that featured a kaleidoscopic guitar solo from guitarist Neal Casal. Just outside of the park, you’d find the hustle and bustle of Manhattan, but such music could make one forget all the horn honking, concrete drilling, police sirens and fast-paced personalities rushing for the next cab or subway train. Instead, such imaginative sounds, being played on a stage surrounded by tributes to the visionary minds of John Lennon (Strawberry Fields to the west of the venue) and Lewis Carroll (the Alice in Wonderland statue to the north of venue), could evoke the notion to “turn off your mind, relax and float downstream,” or to journey down a rabbit hole to Wonderland.
A trio of live warhorses through the home stretch of the band’s one-hour set made for a strong finish. “California Hymn” delivered on gospel and groove. Metaphorically speaking, it was as if “Narcissus Soaking Wet” stirred the sorcerer’s cauldron and from the fumes arose came some seriously intoxicating funk. While Chris Robinson may have been making waves a day earlier with his comments about John Mayer and his brother Rich on the Howard Stern Show, his band was riding the waves of the driving and jangly “Shore Power” to a walloping conclusion of an already lively set.
After a half hour intermission, the mighty Mule hit the stage at 7:30 and launched into some of their heaviest and headiest material, spanning the full length of the band’s existence. The quartet ripped through blazing versions of “World Boss” off of Shout, “Brand New Angel” off of High & Mighty and “About To Rage” off of Deja Voodoo. “Rocking Horse,” off the band’s self-titled release, included the sort of lose-your-shit deep improv that the Mule excels at, and would deliver at many points throughout their set.
After a stirring version of “Whisper In Your Soul,” the band introduced fans to material off of their new album Revolution Come… Revolution Go. Percussionist Bobby Allende appeared on “Stone Cold Rage,” a bluesy hard rocker in the spirit of the classic Mule sound. Background singers Jasmine Muhammad & Lauren Dawson joined the band and Allende for “Sarah Surrender” a song that sounded like one of the R&B-influenced tracks off of Warren Haynes’ solo album Man in Motion. Sans background vocalists, the band and Allende wrapped up their hat trick of newbies with “Traveling Tune,” a sinewy Americana number with bit of celestial sparkle courtesy of Danny Louis on keys.
One of the highlights from the second half of the set included “Game Face,” which featured a wicked jam that weaved together teases of “Norwegian Wood” by the Beatles, “Birdland” by Weather Report and “Mountain Jam” by Allman Brothers Band. Then there were the headtrip stomps of “Banks Of The Deep End” and “Time To Confess,” both hitting like a ton of bricks. Moments like these emphasized the strength of the Mule’s core four as players. Collectively, drummer Matt Abts, bassist Jorgen Carlsson, keyboardist Danny Louis, and guitarist Warren Haynes could venture into hard rock, jazz, prog rock, blues, soul and reggae territories, often times simultaneously.
Special guests were plenty towards the end of the band’s milestone set. Actor Bruce Willis and his harmonica, along with the CRB’s Neal Casal, got in on the action for a straight-no-chaser blues cover of “Key to the Highway.” After dropping the title track off of the band’s yet-to-be-released studio album, percussionist Bobby Allende returned to the fold, along with saxophonist Steve Elson, to bring the set to a close. This was the same pair who blew minds alongside the Mule last Fall, when they contributed to the band’s annual Halloween celebration for a set of Traffic covers. This time around, they tried their hand at a cover of Billy Cobham’s instrumental “Stratus” and a pummeling take on “Mule,” and the magic was made once again. In particular, the interplay between Warren Haynes and Elson at the tail end of the set arguably made for the most exciting jamming of the night. For the encore, Jasmine Muhammad & Lauren Dawson returned for the live debut of “Dreams & Songs,” a tune so lovely that anybody expecting an obligatory “Soulshine” was probably content with such a melodic, well-written alternative.
By the time the band left the stage at 10:00 PM, they had played for two-and-a-half hours, ditching their usual two-set show for a marathon run that featured stellar jams, impressive guest sit-ins and the introduction of several new songs. The Mule’s 2000th show was surely a landmark performance, regardless of its place in the numerical scheme of things.