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Warren Haynes on Recording Simultaneous Albums, Honoring Tony Rice and Revisiting the Phil Lesh Quintet

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photo credit: Jay Sansone

“Up until now, I’ve never had the desire to make two records at one time, and I probably never will again. But everybody was so anxious to get back to work and to be creative,” Warren Haynes says of Gov’t Mule’s decision to record simultaneous albums during the spring of 2021. The first of these releases, Heavy Load Blues, offers a blend of Haynes originals and songs written or associated with artists such as Howlin’ Wolf, Elmore James, Ann Peebles and Bobby “Blue” Bland.

“I’d been thinking about making a blues record for five or six years,” he adds. “For a long time, I didn’t know if it was going to be a Mule record or a solo record but, once we came up with the idea of recording two albums at once, it made perfect sense for Gov’t Mule because I’d written all these songs during the lockdown and I was dying to record them.”

Prior to the release of Heavy Load Blues, Haynes remained active in non-Mule settings as well. In mid-October, the Phil Lesh Quintet (Jimmy Herring, John Molo, Rob Barraco, Haynes and Lesh) reconvened for the bassist’s long-delayed 80th birthday celebration at Port Chester, N.Y.’s The Capitol Theatre. A few nights earlier, he reunited with fellow Allman Brothers Band guitarist Derek Trucks to deliver a few ABB staples during Tedeschi Trucks Band’s Beacon Theatre residency. Haynes has now performed at the Beacon over 250 times, between Gov’t Mule gigs, Phil Lesh shows, Allman Brothers Band dates and various sit-ins. He’ll be back at the year-end, when Gov’t Mule rings in 2022 over two nights at the venue.

In the days leading up to the Phil Lesh shows, were there any songs that you were particularly excited to revisit with The Q?

There’s a bunch of them. It’s good to play the songs that we recorded on There and Back Again [Phil Lesh’s 2002 studio album] because those songs don’t get played very often. But I was also excited to play the jammy stuff that gets psychedelic—we did a really psychedelic “Dark Star.” I was just looking forward to the shows in general because that band can go anywhere at the drop of a hat. All of us love playing together, and we wish we could do it more often.

You closed the three-night run with “Patchwork Quilt.” Although it appears on There and Back Again, you wrote it shortly after the passing of Jerry Garcia in August 1995. Since that time, the Grateful Dead’s work has been reassessed to become part of the Great American Songbook. What are your thoughts on these somewhat belated accolades?

To me, their song catalog is the most impressive of the many impressive things about the Grateful Dead. As amazing as their chemistry was—the improvisational directions that they chose and their philosophical open-mindedness about what the music could be—without that body of songs, it wouldn’t hold up. It’s the songs that really keep that music alive and will continue to keep it alive for decades and decades. There are very few entities that boast a catalog of great songs that vast.

Sometimes it helps to hear them reinterpreted by a different artist. You can really get a true sense of the depth of a composition by hearing someone else do it in a different way. It’s like a Beatles song—you hear all these different interpretations and they all sound great because a great song can be interpreted in so many different ways.

Gov’t Mule opened Halloween weekend in Atlanta by performing Heavy Load Blues in its entirety for the first set on Friday. Then on Saturday, you closed out the run with At Fillmore East. What has that album meant to you over the years?

When and where I grew up everybody I knew considered it one of the greatest live albums of all time. Every guitar player in my circle of friends growing up studied that album intensely. To this day it remains etched in my brain as one of the greatest live albums of all time.

I can hear three seconds of it and unmistakably recognize, “Oh yeah, that’s Fillmore East.” Having played for 25 years in that band and heard those songs interpreted so many different ways, it still dawns on me that in my mind those were the templates.

You always wonder if I heard a different night, a different performance, would I have loved it just as much. There’s no way of knowing the answer to that other than we trust Tom Dowd to have chosen what he thought were brilliant performances. That record to me is monumental.

You recorded a song for a forthcoming Tony Rice tribute record [Barry Waldrep And Friends Celebrate Tony Rice]. Can you talk about Tony and his legacy?

I first started hearing about Tony Rice in the 70s when all my folk-singer friends, bluegrass friends, singer-songwriter friends who were older than me, started talking about him. He kind of scared the shit out of everybody when he came on the scene and they were all talking about how great he was. So I was like, “Wow, I better check this person out.”

He came through this door that had been pried open by Doc Watson, Norman Blake and people like that. But all of a sudden there was this new modern approach to that kind of acoustic guitar playing. Tony Rice was the next step and it just freaked everybody out.

He was a heavy artist as well, in the way that he wasn’t looking to do what people expected him to do or what he thought was going to get him noticed the most. He was just a being an artist and he managed to keep forging his own path. He was way ahead of his time.

When we spoke for the Relix Power of Live issue in 2020, you were still a number of months away from performing in front of audience. What was it like when you finally returned to the stage with the Mule this past April? Were you surprised in any way by the experience?

We were chomping at the bit. We were all way overdue to get back onstage and start performing together. Even though we had a week’s rehearsal prior to our recording sessions and several weeks in the studio, when we got on stage in a lot of ways it was hitting refresh.

We had been in a really good place musically as a band where we left off prior to the pandemic. But then hitting pause for that long, you don’t think about how much you’re going to have to readjust, re-acclimate, and in some cases, remember where things were. 

It really started, though, when Danny [Louis] and I did those South Farm shows as a duo [in October 2020]. It was just the two of us.  That’s challenging enough to interpret songs that are usually played by a full band. But then there were certain songs, where I found myself wondering, “How does this go?” It just felt bizarre to be playing for the first time in so long. I seem to recall that the song “I Shall Return” evaded me for a moment. I don’t know if that, if I’m correct in remembering that or not, but it would be aptly so. [Laughs.]

In our Power of Live conversation you described a country-soul record you had been contemplating. In addition to Heavy Load Blues there’s also the album of Gov’t Mule originals you’ll release in 2022. Is that other project still out there on the horizon as well?

It is although I don’t know how immediate it will be.  I’ve written a lot of songs that fall into that category, and I don’t know what the project’s going to wind up being just yet. I’ve also written some songs with Lukas Nelson and Jamie Johnson that kind of fall into that. I’m curious to see where that all goes. When you and I talked last, I was kind of envisioning it somewhere between Man in Motion and Ashes & Dust. Maybe that’s where it’ll wind up but I don’t know. I definitely have accumulated a lot of songs that kind of work together and have that sort of vibe.

What was the process like when you recorded two records at once with the Mule? Did you differentiate the sessions in any way?

It took a little while for it all to come together. We began talking about it early on during our conference calls as a band. Since we couldn’t tour, we thought it would be a good time to hole up in the studio for a while and do a bunch of recording. But we weren’t going to do that until we were all vaccinated.

We have two of us in New York and two in LA, so somebody would have to get on an airplane, and none of us was ready to do that until we were far enough down the line where we could be vaccinated.

Once we reached that point, everybody was into the concept of making two albums. So we needed to find a studio that could accommodate two different setups because we wanted each record to have its own sound.

That’s when we found Power Station New England and it was great. We set up in the big room like the normal Mule with all our toys. Then, in this adjoining room with much lower ceilings, we set up a bunch of vintage amps, a small drum kit, a small keyboard rig and a little vocal monitor. None of us wore headphones and we played live in the small studio as if we were in a little club or something.

We started out the day in the big room, working on new Mule songs. Then, around 9 or 10 p.m., we switched over to the blues room to play for a few hours before we called it a night. It was a blast.

It was a way of not having to focus solely on one thing or the other. It was also an opportunity for us to play the blues late at night, which is the most fun time to play the blues. By the time that we would get to that part of the day, we would be ready to shut off our brains, stop thinking and just play. It turned out to be a great recipe.

What led you to include a Tom Waits song alongside so many traditional blues tunes?

I had been making a list for several years now of songs that it would be nice to take on at some point. Then, I just happened to be listening to “Make It Rain” one night, and it dawned on me: “That’s a blues tune.” People don’t think of Tom as a blues artist, which he’s not, but some of his songs are blues songs—especially that one. So I thought, “Let’s put it on the list.” As it turned out, it became one that I definitely wanted to do. Up until that point, I had not thought of having any songs that were from outside the blues idiom, so to speak. But that one seemed to make sense, and it’s a great song. So to whatever extent people scratch their head when they learn that a Tom Waits song is on a blues album, all they need to do is listen to it.

Did the nature of your own songwriting evolve over the course of the pandemic?

Early on, I decided that I didn’t want to write a bunch of quarantine songs. So I started thinking about things that were important to me that I’d never really focused on. I also wanted to get out of my own box and start thinking about things in a different way—not just from an inspirational standpoint, but also from a craft standpoint. I didn’t want to use the same methods and techniques to write that I normally would use, forcing myself to choose different influences and directions.

Without being cognizant of it, I found that I was writing about subject matters that are dissimilar to what I’ve done in the past. Maybe it was long overdue. Maybe it was me thinking that I’ve written plenty of dark songs in my life, so I don’t need to get any darker. [Laughs.]

Some of the songs are melancholy and reflective in a way that I wouldn’t say is bright or happy, but they don’t focus on a lot of the things that I’ve already explored. I feel like something clicked. A light came on above my head that told me: “I don’t want to spend this lockdown time period writing a bunch of songs about what it’s like to be trapped.”

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