Two For Joy
You are unlikely to find a rock musician who works harder than Warren Haynes. The 51-year-old lead guitarist and singer works in three bands – Gov’t Mule, which he fronts, The Allman Brothers Band where he plays the lead guitar along with, Derek Trucks, his own solo projects, as well as occasional stints with Phil Lesh & Friends. How the man manages to do all of that for outfits that tour like maniacs – most of these bands mainly play live gigs (sometimes more than a 100 shows a year) and record very few studio albums – is a mystery. Yet Haynes, who was featured at No. 23 on Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time, powers on, shuffling his dates between bands and, as he did recently, makes time to record studio albums as well.
If you’ve seen Haynes perform or heard recordings, you will know how intense and solid he makes his guitar sound and how blessedly soul-filled his voice sounds. Inspired equally by the raw, unpolished blues of legends like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Elmore James, as also by heavy 1970s rock bands, Haynes is a contemporary purveyor of blues-rock. To add to all of this, there is a southern jam-band twist to his playing.
So when Haynes released his much-awaited latest solo studio effort, his first since 1993, Man In Motion (aptly named, I thought, for a guitarist who is constantly touring), I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it. I had just heard last November’s Another One For Woody (an annual gig by Gov’t Mule in New York, which is staged in memory of the late Allen Woody, former bassist for the Mule) and the nearly two-hour concert had some Mule staples, such as Soulshine and Banks of The Deep End, but also a fabulous cover version of The Beatles’ Dear Prudence (a 10-minute plus version, actually!). My apologies for this digression, but at that same gig there were sets by The Allman Brothers Band and a really good one by the North Mississippi Allstars (fronted by the talented duo of Luther and Cody Dickinson) but perhaps I should gush about them on another Sunday.
When I finally got listening to Man In Motion, I found it to be a mellow, soulful album in which Haynes returns to the roots of old-fashioned blues and R&B. Haynes had a couple of well-known New Orleans musicians working with him – Meters’ bassist, George Porter Jr, keyboardist Ivan Neville and drummer Raymond Webber – and that makes a huge difference. Man In Motion is an example of how versatile the itinerant guitarist is. His gigs with the Mule or the Allman Brothers can be rock and blues-infused extravaganzas but he evidently has a subdued side as this album shows.
I first heard My Morning Jacket when someone pointed me to 2006’s Okonokos. It was a two-disc live stunner that made me an instant fan of the Kentucky-based band. They were nothing like any other southern rock band that I’d heard. The reverb-laden guitar, frontman Jim James’s wails and howls and a sound that can be best described as soul flecked with psychedelia, were unique. The problem started when I began looking for more MMJ records – studio efforts such as At Dawn (2001), It Still Moves (2003), Z (2005) and Evil Urges (2008). Z was an instant hit with me, the sound synth-laden and spacey and while all the others were nice, I kept going back to Okonokos, the live album that had made me a fan of the band. Like many bands, they were best heard at gigs, I said to myself.
Till I got this year’s Circuital; actually, I heard the title track off a podcast and it transported me back to the first time I heard Jim James off Okonokos. Just as Haynes is what Gov’t Mule is all about, James is MMJ. His dramatic vocal style is what makes the band what it is. Pretty much like Haynes’ guitar makes Gov’t Mule what it is.
Circuital has got rave reviews from many critics, who’ve mostly said it’s a return to their roots by MMJ. I don’t agree. Circuital is an evolution by the band. It’s a step forward, highly listenable, very MMJ-like and closest to any of the band’s live recordings. Circuital has a strong whiff of the live energy that the band is gifted with. And it may also be a step towards more studio albums that will sound as good as the live ones. On their 2008 studio album (Evil Urges), I’d not really liked James’s new-found falsetto on a few tracks but this time round, he’s used it very sparingly. It works. On Holdin’ Onto Black Metal – a spirited song that I’m still trying to interpret (is it a parody or a mock caution against continuing as a black metal addict?) – his falsetto fits in perfectly. As perfectly as the two new albums fitted into last week for me.