Personnel: Warren Haynes (vocals, guitar); Matt Abts (drums, percussion).
Audio Mixer: Gordie Johnson.
Liner Note Author: Warren Haynes.
Recording information: Tel-Star Studios, Bradenton, FL (06/1994-09/1994).
Photographer: Kirk West.
The worst thing one can say about Gov't Mule's Tel-Star Sessions is that you already know what the album sounds like; that's also the very best thing. No matter how many musical paths guitarist Warren Haynes and drummer Matt Abts have traveled since the death of bassist Allen Woody in 2000, these 1994 demo recordings with engineer Bud Snyder at Bradenton, Florida's Tel-Star Studios represent what they single-handedly pulled off in grand style from the very beginning: Reinvigorating the classic blues-rock power trio à la Cream, Mountain, Hot Tuna, ZZ Top, and Taste. Since joining the Allman Brothers Band in 1989, Woody and Haynes had lamented the dearth of the trio form's rawness, creative energy, and a lack of the "rock bass sound" in modern music. Haynes had worked with drummer Abts in Dickey Betts' band through 1988, and they recruited him. Gov't Mule was originally a "project" with no clear goal other than that of exploration. They learned how to interact through covers and originals, and worked up a repertoire to play live. Seven of these demos -- including covers of Free's "Mr. Big" and Memphis Slim's "Mother Earth" -- were re-recorded for the band's self-titled debut. "Blind Man in the Dark" appeared on Dose. Two more covers -- ZZ Top's "Just Got Paid" and Willie Dixon's "The Same Thing" -- are unique to this release. Assembled, they showcase a band not only finding its way, but imagining the possible.
This set is also a stunning tribute to Woody's genius. When considering the blues-rock bass, one has to consider the innovations made by Jack Bruce. Woody was certainly influenced by him (especially when it came to using jazz), but his phrasing, timing, and groove were his own. He melded melody and rhythm, jazz, blues, rock, and funk in a manner that made his instrument as much a solo vehicle as Hayne's guitar playing. Check the way he stitches them all together on the Dixon tune, adding a nasty funkiness emulated by players ever since. The improvisational balance in the knotty riff on "Left Coast Groovies" pushes Haynes' solo break to find a terrain not already covered by his monstrous, melodic bassline. The turnarounds on Memphis Slim's "Mother Earth" are so massive, filthy, and rock-solid that Abts gets room to syncopate -- on a 12-bar blues! -- while Haynes discovers layers of lyrical depth under the original tune. As a band, this trio could fill every inch of space and not overplay. Check the way psych, rock, and blues entwine on "Blind Man in the Dark," and -- in both versions -- "World of Difference"'s harmony and rhythm are imbued with expansive southern soul and fluid Hendrix-ian psychedelia. Despite the fact that only two of these tunes are "new," the Tel-Star Sessions are among Gov't Mule's most essential recorded documents. The power and musicality on display here rival anything they've released. ~ Thom Jurek