“Walk a mile in my shoes; please don’t judge me ‘til you do,” bemoans Gov’t Mule leader Warren Haynes in “Heavy Load,” his unaccompanied acoustic blues at the center of “Heavy Load Blues,” the 11th Gov’t Mule studio album. Haynes sings the blues as sure as the devil, his gritty, mossy, cavernous voice perfectly suited for the medium. As a guitarist, he’s played striking blues couplets and symphonies of electric blue notes in the Allman Brothers and Gov’t Mule for decades. But this is his first full-blooded blues album, and it’s a stunner. Recorded live off the floor, Gov’t Mule keeps the feel real through six originals and seven broad-spectrum covers (A bonus disc in the deluxe edition adds an additional original and six more covers). Gritty as the presentation is, there’s no lack of attention to detail. The songwriting, sequencing, the intricacies in the performances by Haynes, drummer Matt Abts, keyboardist Danny Louis and bassist Jorgen Carlsson, and the production by Haynes and John Paterno, all conspire to make “Heavy Load Blues” pulse and explode in gripping entertainment.
Just as Eric Clapton did on “From the Cradle,” his return to the blues in 1994, Gov’t Mule kicks off “Heavy Load Blues” with Elmore James’ version of Leroy Carr’s “Blues Before Sunrise.” With Hook Herrera guesting on harp, the ramshackle flow of the song is completely natural as compared to Clapton’s version, setting a compelling tone for things to come. Haynes’ own “Hole in My Soul” follows. The blanket of horns by Pam Fleming, Jenny Hill and Buford O’Sullivan afford the song a B.B. King-like soulfulness that envelops the listener in a velvety embrace, despite the pain Haynes sings of. “Love is a Mean Old World” could be Haynes’ sequel to Little Walter’s “Mean Old World,” its high-tension, tick-tock beat and Haynes’ dexterous juke-joint picking in perfect service to the gravity of his lyrics. Junior Wells’ “Snatch it Back and Hold it,” next, jumps up in straightforward Chicago form, then folds neatly into an archetype Gov’t Mule-penned jam dubbed “Hold it Back,” before returning to Wells’ Southside hoodoo melody. It’s a masterful mash-up.
The rainbow of blues emotion presented continues with a wicked, irreverent spin on The Animals’ Leiber and Stoller-penned “(Brother Bill) Last Clean Shirt,” and then delves into the Tom Waits songbook for a back alley-tense rendition of “Make it Rain.” The Mule’s steam engine take on Savoy Brown’s “Street Corner Talking” and their wrenching version of Elton John’s “Have Mercy on the Criminal” make the deluxe edition a wise purchase indeed.
There’s no sign here of a rock band posing, and no predictability to be found. Rather, this accomplished band plays the blues exactly as it should be played, with passion, inventiveness and homage in spades. Blues aficionados and Gov’t Mule fans alike will love it.
‘Heavy Load Blues’
Label: Fantasy Records
Release: Nov. 12, 2021