Sensational rock/soul group Vintage Trouble tore it up at New York City’s historic Beacon Theater Dec. 30 on the first night of Gov’t Mule’s annual New Year’s stand. A supremely gifted vocalist and ragingly commanding frontman like Trouble’s Ty Taylor comes along maybe once in a generation. It felt right that this crack band was opening for the mega-group that has rescued real rock.
Taylor danced, pranced and worked the crowd like some dapper super-clone of James Brown, Mick Jagger and André 3000, while drummer Rich Danielson and bassist Rick Barrio Dill pounded out relentlessly danceable grooves and guitarist Nalle Colt’s gritty slide-playing revved like greased lightning.
“I wanna take part in the green waves of energy out in the air!” Taylor cried as he bolted off stage and charged up the aisles during “Run Like the River,” a fierce, uptempo bonus track off The Bomb Shelter Sessions. “But hey y’all,” he joked, “quit blowin’ smoke right in my face!”
Whether he was on the run or standing still, which almost never happened, Taylor sang like an unrepentant gospel star caught with his hand up the preacher’s wife’s skirt. His voice is by turns gruff, dark, sexual, sweet, soaring and angelic. Live, he exhibits the flawless pitch, extreme emotional intensity and daring melisma of rare singers like Jackie “Mr. Excitement” Wilson, Otis Redding and Al Green.
Taylor’s a legend in the making if he keeps this up — and he’s got a fine band of brothers that keeps up with him. Being crammed together near the edge of the stage in front of Gov’t Mule’s setup only emphasized the connection between the VT boys, expressed through turn-on-a-dime dynamics, and their obvious delight in playing together.
Noting that “for some people the holidays are a hole they can’t climb out of,” Taylor led the group into their lovely new Christmas tune “Soul Noel“, released Dec. 14 as a digital single. Other highlights included a hyperkinetic “Blues Hand Me Down,” driven by Colt’s stinging licks, crunching power chords and bluesy solos, and the touching soul ballad “Nobody Told Me.”
The tough New York crowd that Vintage Trouble had finally spurred to its feet — no easy task for a still largely unknown act — rose to attention en masse the moment the Mule’s banner appeared. For, without the Mule, would heavy blues-based rock have lumbered into the new mulennium and experienced its heavy rock renaissance? Or would it have fallen like the last mastodon, leaving only shiny Miley robots to entertain us? To the largely male crowd of bikers, bankers and other brethren-for-this-night (though let’s give it up for the loyal ladies who love the Mule, too!), Gov’t Mule at the Beacon is a holy purifying ritual. For that, as a bearded dreadlocked giant sloshing beer on the carpet schooled a pair of still-seated newbies, “You fuckin’ stand! You fuckin’ stand for the Mule!”
And so we rose to the thunderous strains of Jorgen Carlsson’s sinewy bass pumping the opening lines of “Done Got Wise” through an eardrum-crushing sound system, and interlocking with Matt Abts’s big Bonham beat. Manly cheers erupted as Warren Haynes strode onto the stage and laid down the tune’s wicked Page-ish slide riff, stirring memories of Houses of the Holy listening-and-substance-abuse sessions in childhood basements.
Does anyone alive have a better guitar tone or improvise more beautifully on the instrument today, right this second, than Warren Haynes? By turns violin-like, pristine, funky or elephantine, Haynes’s guitar playing is so dense, rich and varied that it’s hard to believe there’s just one guitar player conjuring all that heavy weather.
Not to mention his phrasing! Haynes has the chops to noodle for days, yet he’s so deeply anchored in the aesthetics of the blues that he never plays what a West African drum master might call yoli yoli or “nothing nothing.” When a drum student plays yoli yoli, the master seizes his sticks until the student “cools his heart.” In Yoruba culture, the ability to connect with one’s inner divinity is called itutu, “coolness.” Hayne’s expressive playing and soulful singing are cool in that profoundest sense. We express that concept — though we may not realize it is African — when we say a musician like Haynes “has got soul.”
It helps to pump that soul through some fine guitars and major gear. At the Beacon, Haynes was running through Soldano, Ceasar Diaz and Fender heads, and Marshall cabinets. It looked like he had also hooked up two Leslie rotary speaker cabinets for the ultimate real-deal tremolo. He played an assortment of Gibson Firebirds, Les Pauls and his 335.
With Gov’t Mule’s tenth studio album, Shout, released in September, the band’s talented keyboardist Danny Louis has stepped out more on rhythm guitar. This was fun to see at the show — especially since Louis was sporting a cow hat replete with ears and tail. Louis more than held his own when he left his keyboard station to play funky rhythm guitar on “Steppin’ Lightly,” while Haynes snuck in an unmistakable guitar quote from “American Woman.”
The first set was all Mule, with favorites like “Larger Than Life” encouraging an excited fan to bellow, “They ARE larger than life! THEY ARE!” That was followed by an exquisitely tender “Captured,” which took on Pink Floyd-like grandeur as Haynes’s Gilmour-esque soloing and trippy volume swells floated through the purple haze. Next, Haynes laid into those Leslie cabinets for an eerie “No Need to Suffer,” deepening the journey into the collective mind of one of the greatest rock bands of our time. As Blue Note president Don Was has noted, the Mule have established “a unique and lofty berth. They have roots that run real deep—all the way back to Robert Johnson and the Delta — Yet, despite their mastery of past idioms, they have managed to rearrange those elements into a whole new thing.”
Other first-set highlights included a rippin’ “Inside Outside Woman Blues #3,” and the rousing set closer “Lay Your Burden Down.” “It’s audience participation time,” announced Haynes as he played the song’s bluesy opening licks, “and I’ve had a lotta audiences sing but none can out-sing Beacon Theater.”
Determined to prove him right, the almost-3,000 strong crowd sang its lusty, drunken, stoned-to-the-gills heart out amid shouts of “bring it on, brother!” Maybe it was all that skunky second-hand smoke, but in that moment, brotherhood felt like what this was all about. These concerts are a gathering of the tribe and a uniquely American form of egalitarian communion — bikers and bankers, teachers and truckers, brothers and sisters for one night, united by rock and led into their hearts by Haynes, the Everyman in his humble-yet-touched-by-God form.
During intermission, the Beacon staff threw open the doors to Broadway, letting in a rush of winter wind in a pointless attempt to clear the giant cloud. As the temperature inside the theater dropped to frigid, Haynes eased into set two with a moving “Child of the Earth.” The joint soon heated up with the arrival of special guests, starting with famed L.A. session player and Steely Dan touring keyboardist Jeff Young on Hammond B3 and backing vocals for “Don’t Take Me Alive” from Steely Dan’s Royal Scam.
Next up were blues guitarist and Conan bandleader Jimmy Vivino plus Late Show with David Letterman saxophonist Aaron Heick (Sting, Barbra Streisand, Donald Fagan), who blew a rocking solo on the Nina Simone classic “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.”
Heick stayed up for the ZZ-Top-ish “Slackjaw Jezebel,” then slipped away during Matt Abts powerful drum solo. Abts played some fierce polyrhythms before surreptitiously giving up the drum throne–without missing a beat–to legendary rock drummer Carmine Appice (Vanilla Fudge, Cactus). Appice, who turned 67 on Dec. 15, climbed aboard to the roaring delight of the crowd. Somehow, he made the kit sound even heavier than Abts does — no mean feat!
After a masterful display of Buddy Rich-style virtuosity, Appice slammed into a heavy psychedelic cover of The Supremes hit “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” which made total sense because Vanilla Fudge’s 1967 hard-rock remake was a hit for them, too. Jimmy Vivino and Jeff Young sang backing vocals, and Vivino took a long, complex solo reminiscent of Michael Bloomfield, his biggest influence.
Next, Haynes called back Vintage Trouble guitarist Nalle Colt, who contributed a blistering solo to The Bob Segar System’s 1968 smash “Rambling, Gamblin’ Man.” While the stable of musicians were of the highest caliber, it would have been nice during this fantastic show to have seen a top-notch female guitarist like Joanne Shaw Taylor, Teresa Russell or Ana Popovic grace the stage, as well.
To wrap it up, Haynes brought Ty Taylor to the stage for a somber, intense “Bring On The Music,” giving the Vintage Trouble singer one more chance to wow us. It was an opportunity the singer seized upon.
The three-song encore was a preview of what was to come on New Year’s Eve (billed as “Break On Through to 2014”), as The Doors guitarist Robby Krieger joined Gov’t Mule for “The Changeling,” the B-Side to “Riders On The Storm.” The slim, white-haired legend wore patchwork jeans and cranked out lean, instantly recognizable guitar lines on his trademark SG, while Haynes did Jim Morrison proud.
The Doors’ own blues roots were made clear with a stately “Cars Hiss By My Window,” on which Krieger played classic, simple blues licks. The show finally wound down well into the wee hours with an ominous “Five to One.” As the band dropped out, Haynes got the audience to clap along and sing “get together one more time,” over and over, as he, Krieger, and the rest of Gov’t Mule waved goodbye. The hardest-working man in rock left the stage with one simple reassurance: “See ya tomorrow night!”