Monday, November 29, 2021

Gov't Mule - Heavy Load Blues

Well stone me, I’m impressed.  Albums of blues covers by established artists seem to be ten-a-penny this year, but this half’n’half originals and covers set by Gov’t Mule probably tops the lot.
Never mind the width - and with a running time of 78 minutes Heavy Load Blues is as wide as an elephant’s backside – feel the quality.  See, I can’t say I’m a huge Gov’t Mule fan, though I’ve got a couple of their albums and quite liked ‘em.  But that doesn’t matter, because a couple of listens to this tells you that you’re in the presence of some grown-ups who know what they’re about.
Okay, so a few of the songs here just are what they are, know what I mean?  They open with ‘Blues Before Sunrise’, and it’s a pretty straight reading with some screeching slide guitar and wailing harp, but even though it sounds like they’re just getting warmed up it’s still on the money.  
Gov't Mule - "Waddya mean, 'Say Cheese'?"
Pic by Jacob Blickenstaff
'Ain’t No Love In The Heart Of The City’ is a great song, nicely done, and easily matches up to the benchmark treatment by Whitesnake, while ‘(Brother Bill) Last Clean Shirt’ is less familiar fare -  a lesser known Leiber and Stoller slice of straightforward R’n’B, with a stop-time riff, and a distorted vocal to go with its pained narrative  By contrast, Ann Peebles’ ‘Feel Like Breaking Up Somebody’s Home’ is oft-covered, and the Mules don’t attempt any radical reinvention, but they still put it over with a stylish, funky edge, as drummer Matt Abts’ rock steady beat is accompanied by throbbing bass from Jorgen Carlssen, sparky clavinet from Danny Louis, and squelching guitar from Warren Haynes.
But while all of the above are very good, the Mule shine even more brightly elsewhere.  ‘Hole In My Soul’ and ‘Wake Up Dead’ are both originals, but they come with “where have I heard that before?” melodies.  The former leans on slinky horns and subdued organ, studded by prickling guitar licks from Haynes, while the latter features an ear-catching organ riff, which Louis follows up with an excellent solo, while Haynes provides more injections of guitar commentary, and a steely solo that values substance over flash.
‘Snatch It Back And Hold It’ will doubtless please jam band enthusiasts, as after three minutes the Junior Wells and Buddy Guy tune, with its stuttering riff, sinks into a slower jam, with everyone playing off everyone else and stacks of tension and release going on.  ‘Make It Rain’, meantime, sounds like it’s been around forever, even though Tom Waits only recorded it in 2004.  Probably a lot of that is down to Waits, but I’m inclined to give a heap of credit to the Guvnors too, as they trigger its fatalistic lyrical mood with a swaying Fender Rhodes piano phrase, and more crackling vocals from Haynes.  Then the following ‘Heavy Load’ is seven minutes’ worth of
"Has anyone found the ending yet, fellas?"
haunting acoustic blues, depending on little more than a pinging guitar motif, hints of slide and some sparse piano chords as the backing for Haynes’ evocative vocal about encountering “too many bridges, too many roads”.  For me it feels a minute too long – not the only occasion they overstretch, but given the “live in the studio” approach taken to the album, I’m guessing tracks would just end when everyone was ready to end.
‘If Heartaches Were Nickels’ is another original, but one that comes over like a ready-made classic of a blues ballad, simple but resonant, and with a heartsick lyric delivered by Warren Haynes in emotive fashion, before they pick up the tempo a tad for a playful organ solo, getting Dave Brubeck-jazzy as they head towards Haynes’ guitar solo and a subtle, flickering ending.  ‘I Asked Her For Water (She Gave Me Gasoline)’, on the other hand, is a lead-heavy storm, with a lurching riff reminiscent of Cream’s ‘Politician’, a surging organ turn from Louis, and a couple of solos from Haynes that progress from the merely tempestuous to howling, dizzying levels.  It could be the soundtrack to the Wolf turning in his grave.
Heavy Load Blues is supposedly the first blues album Gov’t Mule have ever recorded.  You could have fooled me.  The half dozen originals on offer here dovetail perfectly with the oldies sitting alongside them, and the end result is a standout collection.  Now you’ll have to excuse me – I need to go and dig out some more Mule albums.

Heavy Load Blues is out now on Fantasy Records.

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