Hometown jam

“We’re kind of a slow, hard-working, nonglorious beast of some sort,” offers Asheville’s favorite hometown-boy-made-good, Warren Haynes, talking about the appropriateness of his band’s name, Gov’t Mule.

Others beg to differ with the modest, supernaturally talented musician (he’s considered one of the world’s premier guitarists). “This is bone-crushing power rock!” exclaimed the usually staid Wall Street Journal. “Unparalleled virtuosity in the service of inspired, rawboned rock,” crowed the Boston Phoenix. Yes, the accolades stretch to kingdom come. But whatever else is said about the mind-bogglingly gifted power trio, this must be added: In a world filled with self-important, self-absorbed performers, Haynes and company (bassist Allen Woody and drummer Matt Abts) are, collectively, that rare — we’d never say “nonglorious” — beast that insists on giving something back.

Enter the Warren Haynes Christmas Jam. For the 11th straight year, Haynes will host a holiday-time benefit concert — with all proceeds going to charity. Habitat for Humanity will be the lucky beneficiary (as it was last year). And the Jam, itself — the last one of the century — will soar to glorious new heights: Traditionally held at Be Here Now (and Haynes emphasizes his eternal gratitude to this club, for its support over the years), the event is moving over to the Diana Wortham Theatre, the better to accommodate a star-studded lineup (many of whom Haynes considers to be “like family”). Edwin McCain, the Derek Trucks Band, Susan Tedeschi, Audley Freed (of the Black Crowes), Col. Bruce Hampton, Jimmy Herring (of Jazz is Dead), Johnny Neel (of Haynes and Woody’s former group, The Allman Brothers Band) — plus promised surprise guests — will all share the stage with Gov’t Mule. Mountain Xpress is proudly co-sponsoring the Jam, for the first time this year.

Haynes caught the local spotlight at an early age, playing guitar and singing in Asheville pizza parlors, beer joints and nightclubs long before he was old enough to legally drink in them. Eventually, he formed a band called Ricochet, which quickly gained a big regional following as word of the young Haynes’ astounding slide-guitar pyrotechnics got around. It eventually got to David Allan Coe — who, based solely on others’ accolades, called Haynes and asked him to play a gig with his band in New Orleans the very next day. Haynes spent four years touring the world with Coe — which eventually led to meeting Coe’s friends Dickey Betts and Gregg Allman, from a little ol’ band you may have heard of called the Allman Brothers. In 1989, the Allman Brothers found themselves a new guitarist — Warren Haynes — just before launching their now-famous reunion tour. Haynes is widely regarded as the prime contributor to the group’s resurgence, penning many of the band’s newer songs, in addition to his powerhouse performances.

Eight years (and several Grammy wins/nominations) later, Haynes decided he could no longer ignore a bit of musical chemistry that had been on slow-simmer in his mind since an impromptu jam session three years before with Woody and former Dickey Betts Band drummer Matt Abts. The three quit their respective groups in 1997 to play full time in the trio, dubbed Gov’t Mule by a former Allman bandmate (“We like the name, because everybody thinks of a different image when they hear it,” reveals Haynes).

Marked by an earth-shattering blend of rock, soul, jazz, psychedelia, blues and fusion, Mule is consistently regarded as one of the most technically brilliant, emotionally potent bands around — possessing an innate chemistry that borders on the spookily supernatural. Among the group’s five CDs are the seminal Dose (Capricorn Records, 1998) and a just-released, limited-edition, career-retrospective boxed set Live … With a Little Help From Our Friends (Capricorn Records). Mule’s new studio release — which Haynes called the band’s most diverse to date — is due to hit the streets in February.

What follows are excerpts from a long, thoroughly enjoyable interview with Haynes:

Mountain Xpress: So how did you first get the idea to do the Christmas Jam? Did you feel like it was a way of giving something back to your hometown?

Warren Haynes: It started out, coincidentally, the year that I joined the Allman Brothers. We figured out that a lot of the [Asheville] musicians traveled for a living … and you could never count on any of them being in town at the same time. It seemed like Christmas time was the only time everybody was home. So it started as a chance to raise some money for charity, but also to get together with a lot of the local musicians and jam, because a lot of us don’t get to see each other that much anymore. It’s kind of just developed into something bigger and bigger.

MX: What do you think of the music scene in Asheville today, and how does it compare with when you were playing around town, back in the mid-’70s?

WH: When I was growing up — before they changed the legal drinking age from 18 to 21 — the bar business was really booming, and bands could make a pretty comfortable living playing nightclubs — even playing original material, back then. But in the late ’70s or early ’80s, when they changed the drinking age, the bar business and the music business simultaneously got hit pretty hard. So it’s been much harder for a struggling, up-and-coming musician to make a living in recent years than it was back then. But the music scene itself in Asheville now seems stronger than ever. The whole community has really blossomed into something that I think is very beautiful. … To leave and come back and see what it’s turned into over the past few years is really refreshing. I think it’s beautiful. … There was a real valid folk scene there when I was a kid, and that made a deep, lasting impression on me. … But the music scene [in Asheville] is very eclectic now, which is really nice.

MX: I read in your bio that your earliest musical influences were really smooth Motown stuff, like Smokey Robinson. When, why and how did you take the leap into heavy rock ‘n’ roll guitar?

WH: Well, I was the youngest of three boys — I still am [laughs] — and we grew up listening to soul music. Otis Redding is still my all-time favorite; I love that stuff so much. It was a fertile time period for that kind of music when I was growing up, because it was really at its apex. Before I discovered rock ‘n’ roll music, soul was just it for me. But when I discovered rock ‘n’ roll, that’s when I wanted to play guitar. … Hearing Eric Clapton with Cream was a big turning point for me, and obviously Jimi Hendrix was, too. But prior to that, I think Sly & the Family Stone really bridged that gap from soul music to rock music for me. … Between me and my two older brothers, I remember a time when we had maybe 15 albums altogether, and one of them was Sly & the Family Stone’s Stand. And I probably listened to that record 8,000 times. … When I listened to it again, 20 years later, I thought, wow, it’s all imprinted on my brain, somehow. The music you love at that impressionable age just stays with you forever.

MX: Did you take years of guitar lessons, or did you teach yourself to play?

WH: I was mostly self-taught, but I took three or four lessons from a guy named Andy Hunter, who’s still around the Asheville area. And Andy was one of the people who told me to teach myself, surprisingly enough. … I was pretty obsessed with playing guitar from the beginning, even when I was just terrible and would just annoy everybody around me.

MX: How do the dynamics of playing in a big, ensemble band like the Allman Brothers compare to playing in a trio? I mean, it’s amazing how powerful the sound of three players can be, if it’s done right. They don’t call them “power trios” for nothing, you know.

WH: Whenever you play in a large ensemble, there’s less pressure on each individual than there is in a smaller ensemble. That puts a lot of pressure on the bass player and the drummer to be constantly playing aggressively, but drawing that line of when it’s too aggressive. You have to take a more aggressive role than you would in a larger band. … All the members of a trio do, but especially the rhythm section. In the Allman Brothers, for example, there were times when I could lay back for a minute, sip some water and listen to the band. But in a trio, I don’t do much laying out. [Laughs]

MX: Speaking of not being able to take a break, you guys are known for playing really long shows — by today’s standards, anyway. I remember the time when hardly any concert was under two hours, but these days, shows seem to be shorter and shorter — with some exceptions, including you guys, of course. Was it a conscious decision from the beginning to play long shows, or was it just a natural progression?

WH: I think we painted ourselves into a corner because, being in the Allman Brothers for eight-and-a-half years, obviously, we’d have a lot of the same audience. The Allman Brothers never played less than two hours. And it’s fun, you know, to play long shows, especially when you’re traveling. That’s the fun part of the day; the fun part is definitely not hanging out in your hotel and ordering room service. … But what happens is, you find yourself in a position where you’re obligated to do the long shows every night. We really like playing a long show, but it does kind of make it where, you know, if you’re a little under the weather, you just have to grin and bear it.

MX: Do you always play from a set list, or is it looser than that?

WH: We make up a set list a couple of hours prior to the show, and it’s based on a log that we keep of every set list we’ve ever played. When we go back to a town, we consult the log to find out what we played there the last time and make sure that we do different songs, at least partially, than we did the time before. We don’t want people coming back and seeing the same show we did the last time. And plus, more and more, we have people that follow the tour from town to town. For those people — and for ourselves, for that matter — it’s nice to change it up on a nightly basis, because we get tired of playing the same songs night after night, and the audience likes to see a different show night after night, so it kind of works out good for us.

MX: Most bands these days are adamantly against audiences taping their shows — presumably because it’ll hurt record sales and take money from band members’ pockets, due to the sale of bootleg tapes — but Gov’t Mule reportedly has no problem with that. What’s good about allowing fans to tape your shows?

WH: Yep, we’re taper-friendly. We approach the songs differently every night, and audiences like to be able to go back and hear the different ways we do them. Where we’re concerned, we feel that 99.9 percent of the people who tape the shows don’t want any money for it — they just want to trade tapes. So that turns other people on to the music. In the case of bands like Phish, they have this huge audience, and they’re all trading tapes back and forth; they reach an unbelievable amount of people that way. And I’ve played with Phish over the years, and people will come up to me on the street and say, ‘Oh, I saw you play with Phish at such and such a time, and you guys played this and played that, and I have the tape and I gave it to a friend. You know, there’s this whole network of people who don’t want to limit their music to what’s commercially available, which is great. Me being a big music fan, if there’s an artist or a band that I really like a lot, I want to get as much by that person or persons as possible. And I don’t want to do it by buying bootlegs. … So it’s nice to be able to tap into that whole trading network. I have amazing tapes that people trade with us and give us and send us in the mail. And I think it helps spite the bootlegging thing, for that matter, because if tapes of your shows are readily available for free, there’s a lot less demand for someone to sell it.

MX: I read a quote from you recently that I really liked: “Music was never meant to be about perfection. It’s about emotion, and there’s nothing perfect about emotion. Really, all three of us agree that the best the music can be is very emotional, with as little cerebral analysis as possible.” Can you expand on that a little — without too much cerebral analysis, of course?

WH: [Laughs] Well, when you strip music down to what it was in its origins, it was just a way of communicating — communicating emotions. But with the help — or hindrance, depending on how you look at it — of technology, we’ve perfected music through the years. And I think that you definitely lose a lot of the emotion when you try and perfect music. With the advent of drum machines and sequences and sampling, sometimes music gets a little too close to Muzak, for me. When you go back and listen to Otis Redding or Aretha Franklin or Ray Charles or even the great rock records of the ’60s and ’70s, or blues records or jazz records, they were all about capturing the moment. And technology, at that point in time, didn’t allow them to go back and fix all the mistakes. … From a listener’s standpoint, you usually can’t tell when a musician makes a mistake, anyway. It may sound like a mistake to a musician, but some “mistakes” sound better than the way a song was meant to be.

MX: How do you account for the amazing chemistry between you, Matt and Allen? Back to what you were just saying, you guys play with an unbelievable amount of emotion, but you all have this amazing technical prowess, too. That combination is hard to find, these days.

WH: The first time we played together, we had a natural chemistry that was just undeniable. I think it came partially from growing up in a similar time period and listening to a lot of the same kind of music. But we all listened to different music, too, and I think the different influences kind of help create the overall picture. … We agree on what’s good and what’s bad, as far as our approach to music. And all of us have this approach that’s very open-minded and very free.

MX: Could you comment on the dreaded and ridiculous “Southern rock” label Gov’t Mule is often stuck with?

WH: When [Allen] Woody and I were in the Allman Brothers, all the guys in the Allman Brothers had a problem with the term “Southern rock,” because it’s about pigeonholing. And actually, Gregg Allman was quoted recently as saying that, seeing as how jazz and blues and rock ‘n’ roll music all came out of the South originally, anyway, it’s kind of redundant. It’s like calling the music “rock rock.” … When I was growing up in the South, music was much more regional than it is now. We’d turn on the radio and hear black gospel music on Sundays that was different from the gospel music in Chicago or California or Colorado. But now, you have people in Scandinavia listening to Delta blues. When I was growing up, it was a little more regional than that. People in North Carolina and South Carolina and Georgia were listening to a different type of music than people in other parts of the country. And, in a way, I miss that — because it gives each region its own personality. But to say that all music that comes out of the South is the same, that’s kind of ridiculous. It’s like saying that, since Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain were both from Seattle, they sounded alike.

MX: What do you think you’d be doing right now, if you’d never taken that leap into playing music for a living?

WH: I’ve been caught up in this so long, the few times that I’ve found myself wondering that … well, I just can’t imagine what I’d be doing. I’d probably have gone to college and pursued something down that road. But I’m really grateful that I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to do something that I love to make a living. To be happy in your work is really the most important thing in life.

Christmas Jam ’99

Mountain Xpress proudly co-sponsors the Warren Haynes 11th annual Christmas Jam — featuring Gov’t Mule, Edwin McCain, Susan Tedeschi and the Derek Trucks Band, plus special guests Audley Freed of the Black Crowes, Jimmy Herring of Jazz is Dead and Johnny Neel of the Allman Brothers Band. In the Christmas Jam tradition, all performers will share the stage. The concert will take place on Wednesday, Dec. 22 at Thomas Wolfe Auditorium. Doors open at 7 p.m., and the music starts promptly at 8 p.m. Tickets ($22.50 in advance, $27 day of show) are on sale at the Civic Center box office, all TicketMaster locations, or by phone (251-5505). All proceeds go to Habitat for Humanity.

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