Ghosts in the cabinet

Warren Haynes channels the spirit of Hendrix.

Govt Mule 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Govt Mule 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
When Warren Haynes plays his guitar, the ghosts begin seeping out of the woodwork, ghosts like Duane Allman, and Jerry Garcia, and maybe even the ghost of Jimi Hendrix stopping by for a listen.
Despite embodying the exploratory vision and visceral power of those six-string masters, though, by the time the album track – or the live show – reaches its end, the ghosts have all returned to their murky netherworld, leaving only Haynes and his earthly musical delights in the spotlight.
It’s a wonder, then, that the 50-year-old Haynes, who was ranked 23 on Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time list in 2003, doesn’t possess a split personality. As the leading rock guitarist still channeling the free-form 1960s jamming vibe – which has since morphed into the 21st-century-required compartmentalized genre of “jam band music” – the Asheville, North Carolina native is in constant demand.
In addition to his steady role as primary singer, guitarist, and songwriter for his band Gov’t Mule, which is making its Israeli debut Friday night at Reading 3 in Tel Aviv, Haynes long ago became the go-to man for legends like the Allman Brothers Band and the various offshoots of the Grateful Dead to fill the roles of their late respective guitarists, Allman and Garcia.
“I think the adjustment to playing in different bands is more automatic than people might expect,” said the amiable Haynes, talking with a slight Southern drawl during a phone conversation with The Jerusalem Post from New York last week. “I really enjoy the challenge of doing several different things musically – it keeps me fresh and prevents me from getting bogged down.
“The biggest challenge, I find, is the selection of the right sound and approaches for each band. It requires different equipment, guitar effects. The various situations allow me to express myself in different ways and expose different sides of my musical personality. A lot of musicians, if they have one complaint, it’s that they don’t have a wide array of music to play. I don’t have that complaint,” he laughed.
Haynes doesn’t even complain when he comes off the road with one band and goes back out a day or two later with another. Or when the die-hard fans of the Allmans and the Dead come to their shows expecting to hear an exact replica of “Whipping Post” or “Scarlet Begonias.”
“I know the reasons I’m chosen to be in these positions, but I try not to think about it too much,” said Haynes. “When I first joined the Allman Brothers Band in 1998, I had the unenviable position of stepping into Duane’s spot. Fortunately, the band and the fans never made me think that I had to sound like him; I was always expected to sound like myself, and how much of his influence I should bring in was up to me. Likewise, the Dead didn’t want me to sound like Jerry Garcia.
“The people whose roles I’m stepping into are revered by fans, myself included, and you want to pay the utmost respect. At the same time, I know they would want me to be myself.”
AND THAT would be someone who’s played the guitar for 38 years, who as a child fell in love with the power-trio blues rock of Cream and Hendrix. Hearing the Allman Brothers for the first time led him to discover blues masters like B.B.
King, Albert King and Howlin’ Wolf. But he remained a disciple of Duane Allman’s, learning to play the slide and even adopting Allman’s favorite guitar – a Gibson Les Paul ’58 – as his own axe of choice.
By the time he was 20, Haynes was a working musician, playing guitar in country-rocker David Allan Coe’s band. Eventually he met Allman’s former guitarist Dicky Betts and joined his band.
And when the Allmans decided to get back together in 1989, Betts brought in Haynes, along with a new bass player, Allen Woody.
In 1994, during another lull in the Allmans’ career, the always-itching-to-play Haynes and Woody decided to form their own side project. Thus Gov’t Mule was born. They quickly gained a reputation for scorching live shows and, by 1997, they left the Allmans to focus on Gov’t Mule full time. Within three years, though, Woody was dead of a suspected drug overdose and Haynes was shattered.
“When Allen died, my first reaction was to end the band,” he said. “It took me several months to get my head around the concept to continue. But I received a lot of encouragement from friends and other musicians to keep the music going. A lot of musicians reached out to me like [the Grateful Dead’s] Phil Lesh and [Blues Travelers’] John Popper; and friends who had been in similar positions of losing key bandmembers, like James Hetfield of Metallica and Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters, were all extremely encouraging and supportive.”
Haynes and drummer Matt Abts decided to keep the band going. In addition, he rejoined the Allmans and heeded to a request from Lesh to play lead guitar and sing for his project Phil Lesh and Friends, which began a decade-long association with the past members of the jamming icons. Among the most daunting tasks hoisted upon Haynes was learning the vast Dead catalogue.
“Of course, we were reinterpreting everything – the mission with Phil was to not play the songs the way the Dead played them,” he said. “When I went out with the Dead in 2004, we learned something like 165 songs; there were lots of rehearsals involved, but they also wanted to interpret things differently – it was a chance for them to reinvent themselves.”
Haynes admitted that while he thought he was an open-minded, free-form kind of musician, he was given a crash course in musical exploration through his association with the Dead – especially Lesh.
“When I started playing with Phil, I witnessed another level of open-mindedness that I hadn’t tapped into yet,” he said. “He has a beautiful sense of music, which places no pressure on the musician – there are no mistakes or wrong notes, only missed opportunities. The key is the ultimate encouragement to explore at all times; it’s all about the journey, and there are different stops along the way, some are magical and others meandering on the way to find the magic. It opens doors most of us have never opened before.”
TODAY, HAYNES still keeps the doors open, heading out on the road with the Allmans, Lesh or the Dead, as long as it doesn’t conflict with his Gov’t Mule responsibilities.
“Gov’t Mule is my main laboratory – with the Allmans winding down and the future of the Dead uncertain, I feel like we’ll be recording and touring with Gov’t Mule for years to come,” he said.
The band, featuring Haynes, Abts, bassist Jorgan Carlsson and keyboardist Danny Louis, has become somewhat of a magnet for other musicians, with friends like Les Claypool, Phish’s Mike Gordon, Dave Matthews, ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons and a slew of others sharing stages with Haynes and company over the years. While Haynes appreciates the recognition, he doesn’t want it to take precedence over the music.
“On the one hand, it’s the kiss of death to be labeled a musician’s musician, because that means that in a lot of the cases the average person isn’t drawn to it,” he said. “I’ve got a wide circle of musician friends and collaborators, but I hope that doesn’t keep us from connecting with the average listener.
“In our case, we make pretty palatable music for anyone who takes his music seriously. Ultimately, we’re really making music for ourselves, and our audience grows out of that. If you make yourself happy artistically, people who are like-minded will follow suit.”
That’s why you’re likely to see those ghosts of Allman, Garcia and Hendrix hovering over whenever Gov’t Mule performs.