Preview of a Glittering Future
In their twenty-two year history, Southern rock band Gov’t Mule has threaded the line between cultural influence and commercial success with finesse. The group has released thirteen Billboard-charting albums while cultivating a devoted fan base and mixing genres as diverse as blues rock, funk, and grunge with the fiendishly inventive glee of mad scientists. Shockingly, all of this acclaim is directed toward a side project: Gov’t Mule was created by Warren Haynes and Allen Woody of the Allman Brothers Band to fill downtime in between recording sessions.
This unusual genesis makes Gov’t Mule particularly interesting to study, and these efforts have been aided by the August release of The Tel-Star Sessions. It is common for bands with two decades of success under their belts to release an album updating and remastering their old hits. However, Sessions inverts this formula by being an album of material the band recorded before they released their debut album. It was originally supposed to be the debut album, but was shelved; twenty-two years later, listeners are finally worthy.
The most interesting track, and apparently one of the first Gov’t Mule ever composed, is a cover of ZZ Top’s “Just Got Paid.” The working-class ethos that animates both bands shines through over flitty and staccato guitar riffs that are simultaneously powerful. Haynes does a riveting job of echoing Billy Gibbon’s sardonic assertion that while money may be “the root of all evil,” it is “way ahead” of being broke.
The lyrical themes of this proto-Gov’t Mule mainly comprise the toils of labor and the women that electrify their lives. “Mr. Big” is a song belonging to both categories. The singer “works all day,” just so he can get back to his girl who has “so much love just for [him].” Said singer is understandably miffed when the eponymous “Mr. Big” (unfortunately unrelated to the “Sex in the City” machista of the same name) presents himself as a romantic rival. Haynes, an ever generous hotelier, offers to set up Mr. Big with a luxury accommodation in “a great big hole in the ground.” He caps off his implied phallic superiority with a hammering two-minute long guitar solo. Mr. Big? More like Mr. Big Whoop after this.
Fans of Mule are often dismayed by contemporary popular music, and by one element in particular: its relative lack of pulsing, shredding, gobsmacking, priapism-inducing electric guitar solos. For such an audience, the release of Sessions is akin to finding a secret liquor store in Saudi Arabia. The album clocks in at one hour and one minute, and at least twenty-five of those minutes are guitar solos or at least instrumental passages. The variety in the solos is astounding: the fluttering hammer-ons of “Earth” are uplifting, while the grungy stabs that open “Rocking Horse” sound like something the modern incarnation of Swans would play.
Diehard fans of Mule may not be captivated by Sessions, given that virtually all of the songs eventually ended up on albums after they were first penned in 1994. However, for Allman fans looking to get into one of the most successful side projects in Southern rock history, or for anyone looking for an adrenaline rush, Sessions is a treat.