Friday, May 13, 2011

Warren Haynes - A Tale of Two Albums

In 1994, Warren Haynes was pulling his first stint as a member of the Allman Brothers Band. By this time, the Allman Brothers had recorded three studio albums [Seven Turns, Shades of Two Worlds, Where It All Begins] and one live album [An Evening with the Allman Brothers Band: First Set]. He and ABB bassist Allen Woody were both hired guns for the Allman Brothers. There was lots of downtime between tours and both men had the itch to play in front of paying audiences more often. They decided to form a power trio with drummer Matt Abts, whom Warren Haynes knew during his [and Matt’s] tenure in the Dickey Betts Band before the Allman Brothers reformed in 1989. They called this power trio Gov’t Mule. Originally it was just a side project in between ABB albums and tours. But then the ABB studio albums stopped. I still don’t know the reason they quit making studio albums, but the effect was to stifle an outlet for Warren Haynes’ creativity.

After the Beacon Theatre run in the spring of 1997, both Warren Haynes and Allen Woody left the Allman Brothers to concentrate on Gov’t Mule full time. They made three studio albums [Gov’t Mule, Dose, Life Before Insanity] and two live albums [Live at the Roseland Ballroom, Live…With a Little Help From Our Friends] before Allen Woody died in a New York hotel room in 2000. Other Gov’t Mule albums followed. There’s the three-album Deep End project [The Deep End Vol 1, The Deep End Vol 2, The Deepest End] that paid tribute to Allen Woody. Once that project was put to bed, Gov’t Mule settled on a permanent bassist – Andy Hess. They recorded three albums with Andy Hess [Déjà Voodoo, High & Mighty, and Mighty High] before they parted ways. And since Woody’s death, Warren Haynes rejoined the Allman Brothers in 2001. Warren is a prolific writer who needs several outlets for his creativity. Recently he recorded two albums back-to-back – By a Thread with Gov’t Mule, and Man in Motion under his own name. Here are my thoughts on a “tale of two albums.”

By a Thread, like High & Mighty before it, was recorded at Willie Nelson’s Pedernales Studio. Warren Haynes co-produced the album with Gordie Johnson. Unlike previous albums where Warren would show up with completed songs ready to record, By a Thread boasts many tunes credited to the entire band. Most of these songs were created in the studio from scratch. This was a very different approach for Gov’t Mule, but one that appears to make the others in the band happy.

Broke Down on the Brazos kicks off the album with Matt Abts and new bassist Jorgen Carlsson leading the way. Jorgen Carlsson replaced Andy Hess a couple of years back. With his inclusion, Gov’t Mule has some of its “in-your-face” swagger they had when Allen Woody was still alive. Jorgen plays his bass loud, aggressive and dirty. I like his sound. When the guitars kick in, the astute Mule listener will immediately notice it isn’t Warren Haynes, but none other than ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons, the Rev. Willie G. himself. Warren mentioned one time the song itself was inspired by early ZZ Top. It was the last song written and recorded for By a Thread. Warren called up Billy Gibbons, sent him the track, and got a call back to say “let’s do it.” And so they did.

Steppin’ Lightly oozes that 70s vibe. LOTS of guitar solos abound.

Railroad Boy is a Celtic folk tune that gets the Led Zeppelin treatment, most especially from drummer Matt Abts. Matt channels his inner John Bonham on this tune. A rarity among Mule tracks, Warren plays a Les Paul 12-string capoed at the 7th fret. After Warren’s blistering slide solo he makes way for Danny Louis and his Hammond. If you close your eyes you could swear you were hearing Deep Purple’s Jon Lord, vintage Made in Japan. His Hammond has that same fire-belching, uncaged beast sound that Jon Lord used so effectively as a counterpoint to Ritchie Blackmore. My favorite song on By a Thread. I can listen to it anytime.

Monday Mourning Meltdown is a rip on the Bush Administration. “Shame on you for fooling me, shame on me for believing. Who would have thought your Patriot Act would be so damn deceiving? What’s happened to you?” The music strikes me a cross-between of Pink Floyd and Jimi Hendrix with backwards guitar solos to boot.

Gordon James is a folk song about an arms dealer. It starts of which churchy organ and acoustic guitar. Then when the drums kick in, you can also hear a violin or two. This song is very out of character for Gov’t Mule, but its fun to listen to.

Any Open Window is a fast track, especially for Gov’t Mule. When I heard the riff and Matt Abts pounding out the drums, something inside told me “Hendrix – Stone Free.” Wouldn’t you know that I opened the CD booklet, and between the songwriting credits and the lyrics, you see the words “Dedicated to Mitch Mitchell and Buddy Miles.” I like it when Warren says “excuse me” before he rips into a solo. I’ve heard Albert King do that numerous times.

Frozen Fear – Gov’t Mule flirted with reggae on High & Mighty on the song Unring the Bell. They return to that reggae-ish vibe on Frozen Fear. This is the lighter side of Gov’t Mule, like Beautifully Broken from The Deep End Vol. 1.

Forevermore – I first heard Warren play this on his Live at Bonnaroo CD. On that CD he played it solo and acoustic in front of 250,000 people. Apparently Gordie Johnson talked him into recording it with the band. On By a Thread it starts out the same way – solo and acoustic through the first verse. Danny Louis adds organ tones starting with the second verse. Right at the 2:00 mark, Jorgen and Matt Abts join the song, and Warren plays electric. At 3:03, a scorching wah-wah drenched solo, until the 3:45 mark, where the song ends as begun- solo and acoustic.

Inside Outside Woman Blues #3 is Warren’s answer to Cream’s Outside Woman Blues. It has a big, fat Les Paul tone with greasy wah-wah to boot. It’s called “#3” because they recorded two other versions, which [according to Warren] are going to see the light of day one way or another. Each version had a different vibe – they chose this one to release. If jamming is what you like, here it is.

Scenes from a Troubled Mind and World Wake Up. Both are leftovers from High & Mighty with Andy Hess on the bass. If there is a Gov’t Mule, it’s that Warren saves the slow, moody tunes for the end of an album. By a Thread is no exception.

Man in Motion is Warren Haynes’ first solo studio album since 1993’s Tales of Ordinary Madness. The album’s title is appropriate. Since the death of James Brown, Warren Haynes has assumed the title of “The Hardest Working Man in Show Business.” When he is not touring or recording with Gov’t Mule, he’s one of the guitarists in the Allman Brothers Band. To underscore his importance to that band, Gregg Allman often refers to Warren as “my right arm.” Whenever The Dead want to tour, Warren usually gets the call to fill in for the late, lamented Jerry Garcia. He was an integral part of Phil Lesh & Friends for three years, appearing on that group’s lone studio album There and Back Again. In his spare time he produced a few tracks for Taj Mahal’s Maestro album. And when most people are sleeping, he’s usually sitting in with somebody else at a gig.

The antithesis of a Gov’t Mule album, Man in Motion is a vocal driven affair. According to Warren, "before I started playing guitar, I wanted to be a singer, right from the age of five or six, and what I wanted to sing was soul music. My brothers and I had just a handful of albums. First they were the ‘Best of' collections by Sam & Dave, Wilson Pickett, James Brown, the Temptations, Aretha Franklin…and eventually albums by the three Kings of the blues, Freddie King, B.B. King and Albert King. In fact, it was hearing B.B. and Freddie that made me realize you could be a great singer and a great guitar player. So I decided to model myself after them." Fear not guitar lovers, there’s plenty of Warren’s playing on Man in Motion. It just isn’t the face-melting variety one is used to from his work with Gov’t Mule and the Allman Brothers. According to Warren, there’s a heavy influence of the “Three Kings” [Albert, Freddie, and B.B.]. Instead of his trusty Les Pauls, Warren utilizes vintage Gibson semi-hollow body instruments — ES-335 and ES-345 models from his extensive collection.

After Gov’t Mule finished recording By a Thread, Warren Haynes recorded Man in Motion. He worked in the same studio [Pedernales Studio], same producer [Gordie Johnson], but he swapped out Gov’t Mule with a different set of players. He put together his soul-band “dream team” - a New Orleans based trio of George Porter Jr. on bass, Ivan Neville on keys and Neville’s Dumpstaphunk bandmate Raymond Weber on drums. This lineup soon expanded with the addition of second keyboard player Ian McLagan from The Faces, as well as vocalist Ruthie Foster and Ron Holloway on saxophone. Also present are the Grooveline Horns [Carlos Sosa, Fernando Zastillo, Reggie Watkins]. This may be a band of all-stars, but they sound like they’ve been playing together for a long time. Putting Ivan Neville and Ian McLagan together was a stroke of inspiration from co-producer Gordie Johnson. It gives Man in Motion that Richard Manuel/Garth Hudson feel. A testament to the skill of these musicians, Warren Haynes and company recorded this gem in six days.

Man in Motion – Who starts an album with an eight-minute song? Warren Haynes does. “Still life is overrated.” What would Warren Haynes know about being still? When I first heard this song, I was reminded of Booker T. & The MGs, which is fitting since this album was released on Stax Records. From the opening notes of George Porter, Jr.’s bass line to the wah-drenched rhythm guitar on the title track, this album is all about groove and soul. Warren describes the title track as "a snapshot of someone who is evolving and in constant change, and I can certainly relate to that. I feel that musicians are students for life, so it's important for me to always seek new experiences and throw myself curve balls, to remain inspired and challenged, and to grow. And while I've been thinking about getting back to another solo studio album for a long time now, I've had other things demanding my attention." You think?

River’s Gonna Rise – Warren has been playing this with the Allman Brothers. If they ever do another studio album, they could do this one and Gregg Allman’s Just Another Rider, which Warren co-wrote with Gregg. I can always dream… Ruthie Foster is all over this one while Warren solos the last two minutes – think Merry Clayton on Gimme Shelter.

Everyday Will Be Like a Holiday – written by Booker T. Jones and William Bell, this is the lone cover on the album. I haven’t heard the original (yet), so I don’t have a frame of reference. This version is pretty good.

Sick of My Shadow – sax man Ron Holloway plays his tenor sax through a wah-wah. That’s something he used to do when he was in a band called Root Boy Slim. He swaps call-and-response solos with Warren for the last two minutes. Warren sounds almost…jazzy.

Your Wildest Dreams – Gospel! When I hear this song, I hear Otis Redding. I’m reminded of Dreams to Remember. I’ve heard Warren sing that song, and this one sounds like that one. He shows off his vocal chops here – his best vocal on the album. Ron Holloway gets to stretch out during the last minute. It’s a toss-up between this one and the title track for my favorite song on the album.

On a Real Lonely Night – funk! There’s a formula emerging on this album – when you think the song is over, and then Warren starts a solo that takes the last two to three minutes of the song. Sometimes it’s just him, sometimes he swaps solos with Ron Holloway. On this number, he trades off with the entire horn section. Nice!

Hattiesburg Hustle – this is about as close to Gov’t Mule that Warren gets on Man in Motion. There aren’t the face-melting solos you’d normally hear on any Mule CD. This song is more along the lines of Banks of the Deep End or Beautifully Broken. I foresee Gov’t Mule and/or the Allman Brothers doing this one live. There’s a great lyric on this song – Ego is a muscle – just add fame and watch it swell.

A Friend To You – a slow song about unrequited love that has a tempo change in the middle. That kind of dynamic keeps things interesting – it does for me anyway. This one is very laid back, and I mean that in a good way.

Take a Bullet –This one reminds me of In the Midnight Hour. Somewhere Wilson Pickett is smiling – Steve Cropper too.

Save Me – the album closer, this opens with both Neville and McLagan taking things to church while Warren’s vocal sounds like it was recorded during a Sunday morning service. Save Me has a false ending – in the coda you can hear just a little bit of Warren’s guitar. A great song and a great way to finish an album.

So there you have it – two sides of Warren Haynes. If you like good original music played by fantastic musicians, these two albums are a good addition to your music collection. Enjoy!

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