Warren Haynes’ acoustic Americana on “Ashes and Dust” wanders down a musical path the virtuosic guitarist has never explored, yet Haynes’ folk stories and lush arrangements provide an interesting journey that bears more fruit than one would think.
Haynes earned his acclaim in the music world as the powerful conductor of blues giants Gov’t Mule and lead guitarist in the final configuration of the Allman Brothers Band. He has also spent time in several jam-heavy projects with Phil Lesh and the Dead, and has traversed along the foothills of blues, rock and soul in his own Warren Haynes Band.
Haynes’ switch to a more acoustic palette is not as shocking as Bob Dylan going electric, but it is different to hear Haynes’ bluesy voice in a more honeyed timbre and accompanied by mandolin and violin instead of crashing drums and reverb.
But it seems this side of Haynes has always been growing quietly somewhere in his soul. “I’ve been writing songs all my life from a more folky, singer-songwriter, even Celtic direction,” said Haynes in a press release for the record. To bring these songs to life, he recruited roots act Railroad Earth as his collaborative backing band, which he had formed a relationship with after playing together at Delfest in Cumberland, Maryland. The result is an album that sees both Haynes’ and Railroad Earth evolve, trying something different. (Here’s video of Warren Haynes and Railroad Earth playing Spots of Time at the Capitol Theater in Port Chester, NY. — VIDEO )
Where “Ashes and Dust” succeeds is when Haynes takes what he does best and puts it in a new context. “Is It Me Or You” has the heavy, blues phrasing of a Gov’t Mule song, but the distinct whistling of Tim Carbone’s fiddle and the lilting picking of John Skehan’s mandolin keep the song wonderfully rooted in Americana traditions. Haynes’ electric guitar adds a weathered grit to “Coal Tattoo” and a gliding outro jam that picks up and grooves on the updraft of Carbone’s fiddle and Haynes’ guitar.
One of the reasons for Haynes teaming with Railroad Earth to flesh out his acoustic vision was the band’s ability to jam out songs without losing its integrity. The luscious “Spots of Time” is the perfect melding of both artists need to explore, with additional travelers in Allman Brothers Band bassist Oteil Burbridge and percussionist Marc Quinones. Haynes’ voice and guitar soar around lines like, “Spots of time flash before my eyes-like ribbons of light/ Helplessly I try to touch them before they disappear into the night,” before the band fall into a whirling outro. Carbone whips around Quinones’ percussion and Burbridge provides a steady undercurrent of rhythm in the freewheeling jam.
The rich, rootsy instrumentation of “Ashes and Dust” certainly is different for Haynes but so is the songwriting. The narrative of “Company Man” follows the hard times of a lifelong worker to a zealous beat that feels like a nod to the socially conscious folk tunes of the 1950’s and 1960’s. Haynes muses, “The time is right for looking in the mirror/ The time is wrong for holding on to the past,” in the poetic closer “Word On The Wind” that is more reflective and personal than most of Haynes’ lyrics.
However, with his new approach Haynes doesn’t always strike gold. The more poetic lyrics and acoustic instrumentation make numbers like “Blue Maiden’s Tale” and “New Years Eve” feel overly lush and dramatic. “Glory Road” is a boring, country stroll through a cowboy’s premonition of grandeur that seems to exist only because all acoustic records have to have a slow ballad.
Even with missteps, you can tell Haynes and Railroad Earth took the opportunity with this album to go places they haven’t been before. The mythical “Gold Dust Woman” burns with the lonesome intensity of a desert canyon, and the burnt sage vocals of Grace Potter on top of the warm and enveloping strings of fiddle and guitar pull the song into Fleetwood Mac territory, certainly new for Railroad Earth.
“Stranded in Self Pity” is an interesting track as well, because both bands push their own sonic boundaries. The song shuffles along to a ragtime-blues rhythm that mopes along to Skehan’s timely piano, Carbone’s forsaken fiddle work and even a couple dreary lines from Andy Goessling’s clarinet. It is a surprise hearing all those instruments moving together on this album, especially considering the musicians behind them, but it is a nice surprise.
“Ashes and Dust” is a nice addition to Haynes’ repertoire and hits more marks than it misses. With a new attachment on his musical tool belt, it will be interesting to see how Haynes incorporates this softer side of him into his work going forward.
- Warren Haynes
“Ashes and Dust”
Release: July 24, 2015
Notable Tracks: “Spots of Time,” “Stranded in Self Pity,” “Coal Tattoo”