O f course, we have to ask Warren Haynes about punk rock.
The 53-year-old roots-excavating guitarist, singer and songwriter consumes music the way a kid devours the bounty from his trick-or-treat bag: indiscriminately, with the emphasis on getting down as much as possible.
You hear it in Haynes’ playing with bands such as The Allman Brothers and The Dead, as well as in the tunes of his own group, Gov’t Mule, where jazz, blues, R&B and rock and roll are akin to the strands of DNA threaded inside a chromosome.
A sampling of the acts that Gov’t Mule has covered: King Crimson, Frank Zappa, U2, Son House, Deep Purple, Van Morrison, Black Sabbath.
That’s just a taste of the breadth of their influences.
But what about punk, maybe the only off-shoot of rock ’n’ roll that hasn’t had much of a presence in the Gov’t Mule canon?
Is this the last frontier that the band has yet to explore?
Have we found a way to stump a musical sponge like Haynes?
When asked about the one sound we wonder if he has a history with, just out of curiosity’s sake, Haynes turns the conversation to Elvis Costello and The Attractions, whom one of his older brothers turned him on to in the late ’70s.
“At the time, I was listening more to jazz and blues music and wasn’t as receptive,” says Haynes, who plays tonight with Gov’t Mule at the House of Blues at Mandalay Bay. “One of the first things that made me change my mind was hearing the song ‘Alison,’ which, when you go back now and listen to what a well-crafted song that was and how it could cross over into almost any genre, that kind of defied the whole categorization thing.”
Defying the whole categorization thing is what Haynes has made a career of.
He’s best known as a guitarist, a masterful player who can convey as much emotion with a string of notes as many vocalists can with a string of words, but as a kid, he was initially more into singing.
“My first hero was James Brown,” Haynes says. “Thanks to my older brothers, I was listening to the Four Tops, The Temptations, Sam &Dave, Wilson Pickett. I learned to sing from listening to soul music in my room at a very early age. Then when I heard Sly and the Family Stone, that helped build some sort of bridge towards Jimi Hendrix. And when I heard Cream, Hendrix and Johnny Winter, that’s what made we want to play guitar.”
Eventually Haynes’ musical education would bring him around to artists like the aforementioned Costello, who would become a game changer for Haynes in more ways than one.
In addition to further broadening his already vast musical palette, turns out that Costello, now a friend of Haynes’, would have a direct effect on Gov’t Mule’s latest album, “Shout!,” all these years later.
At the outset of the writing process for the album, Haynes penned “Funny Little Tragedy,” a taut, punchy number as to-the-point as a fist to the jaw, which reminded Haynes of an early Costello tune.
Haynes called Costello to find out what kind of microphone he would have used during that era of his career.
He would later end up asking Costello to sing on the song.
One guest vocalist led to another, and eventually the band decided to cut a separate disc featuring a different singer on every song in addition to an album with Haynes singing the tunes.
The group didn’t just swap in new vocal tracks for Haynes’ singing, they re-recorded the songs entirely, and many of them take on decidedly new shapes, like “Stoop So Low,” which becomes even more of a bluesy slow burn with Dr. John at the mic, or the gorgeous “Captured,” which gets tightened into a singular expression of longing with My Morning Jacket frontman Jim James.
“I was always surprised with the actual results, but never with the concept of (the different vocalists) taking it to their own place,” Haynes says. “I think one of the things that happens when people listen to ‘Shout!’ is that you get some insight into what it is that singers do when they interpret a song, because my version is completely different from someone else’s. It shines a little bit of light on what that interpretation process is like.”
A wide range of singers undertook this process on “Shout!,” guests such as Ben Harper, Grace Potter, Dave Matthews, Steve Winwood and Toots Hibbert, resulting in two discs that are wholly different from one another. The first album finds Gov’t Mule jamming their songs out a bit more, taking their time to explore a tune’s every contour.
Album 2 defers more to the person behind the mic.
Together, they showcase both sides of the band: their skill at crafting tightly honed songs and the relish with which they depart from what they’ve crafted.
“One of the things that we’re always looking to achieve is some sort of balance between our love of improvisation and our love of songcraft,” Haynes says. “It’s nice to create motifs that are very improv-friendly, but my love of songwriting is as important than my love of improvisation. There’s never a time when I feel like a song is just an opportunity to jam.”
Contact reporter Jason Bracelin at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0476. Follow on Twitter @JasonBracelin