Gov't Mule at the Commodore Ballroom, November 16, 2004
Last time I saw progressive blues outfit Gov’t Mule, they were promoting their latest album, Dose, opening for Big Sugar at The Rage. We were right up front for their too-brief set and were blown away by the clinic they put on. Bassist Allan Woody died not long afterward, and the band laid low for a while, issuing a series of albums with guest bass players and staying away from Vancouver. They recently gained a new bassist, a keyboard player, and the “jam band” tag, a welcome appellation from my POV, since it gives them a built-in audience and keeps them on the road…all the way up to our sodden city. Willingdon Black, Christian Scum, and I were there to get our long-awaited second dose.
I’d heard rumours of a four-hour set, so I was afraid the gig would be a hard slog. The concert didn’t pan out that way—the rumoured four-hour endurance test turned out to be two tight hour-and-a-quarter sets (we were out of there by 11:30), and instead of endless noodling we were treated to consistently scintillating musicianship and great songs.
The concert opened with “Blind Man in the Dark” and “Thorazine Shuffle”, two songs from Dose that took me right back to the show at The Rage. The band really held back until Haynes’s first solo got everyone’s attention. From then on, the band had the crowd hooked. Drummer Matt Abts seemed to be pacing himself. He’s got a fluid style with a light touch, an economical technique that doesn’t exclude the odd flourish, like two-handed crossovers and fast double-kick workouts. Altogether an amazing player to watch and listen to. The new recruits on bass and keys kept a low profile—the bassist appeared to be in a deep trance most of the night—but were crack players. The keyboardist had a Hammond/Leslie combo and a collection of other instruments that added nice colour. The focus remained on Haynes and Abts, though.
After intermission, the keyboardist struck up a familiar warbly keyboard riff… I didn’t get my hopes up; I guessed it might be a tease. But no, the whole band joined in on “No Quarter.” Aside from the fact that they couldn’t have done a cooler cover version, the choice of song said a lot about Gov’t Mule. They’re a band that can be all things to all people. To Mr. Black, they’re Southern rockers. To Ken Masters, attending his first G. Mule show, they’re like Deep Purple, with Haynes as the Blackmorian guitar hero. In my view, they’re heavy progressive rockers, willing to mess with time signatures and extend standard song structures. Adding the bluesy-heavy-proggy “No Quarter” to the set simply encapsulates and validates all these perceptions.
Having got the Led out, they rocked even harder for the rest of the second set, which included “Don’t Step On the Grass, Sam” (with “Subterranean Homesick Blues”-style cue cards and crowd participation), drum and bass solos, and an extended version of “Mule.” Apts was a sweaty mess by the end, and their one encore was perfectly sufficient to acknowledge the audience’s appreciation of what went down. Everyone was glad Gov’t Mule came to play.