Celebrating Gov’t Mule’s 1,001st show with co-founder drummer Matt Abts on Saturday, frontman Warren Haynes might well have called his group Work Horse. As if recording and touring relentlessly with this hard-rocking jam band since 1995 weren’t enough, the singer-songwriter-guitarist can also be found on the road this year sharing time between the Allman Brothers Band (with whom he’s been associated since the late ’80s) and the newest incarnation of the Dead (which also includes opening several of their shows as a solo artist). And yet, to his credit, given all those gigs over the years, he continues to seem incapable of phoning one in.
Formed as an Allmans’ side project with the late Allen Woody, Haynes and Abts are now joined in their sweaty distillation of Southern rock, jazz, blues, reggae and myriad other influences by bassist Andy Hess and keyboardist Danny Louis. Early in the first of two sets, the outfit rode an aptly named “Rocking Horse,” taking the tune through its paces from an easy gallop to breakneck and back with precision.
Among the jam-band tenets adhered to by Gov’t Mule (besides the burning of nag champa), songs — often several minutes in length — segue seamlessly into the next, and covers are plentiful. But thankfully pointless noodling is kept to a minimum, and rarely does the genre sound so muscular, with Haynes and company able to turn Bob Marley’s chordally simplistic “Lively up Yourself” into a guitar god workout.
Drop-in guests (another tradition) on this particular occasion included Ben Harper, who lent some added soul on vocals and grit on lap steel to the Mule original “Lay Your Burden Down” and a side visit to Howlin’ Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightning”; harp player Hook Herrera (whom Haynes introduced as having been at show No. 1) on the classic blues numbers “She’s Nineteen Years Old” and “Ain’t Superstitious”; and former Black Crowes lead guitarist Marc Ford on the night’s final song, the always elegiac “Cortez the Killer,” by Neil Young.
Current concert run is being touted as Rebirth of the Mule Tour, given the naming of Hess in September as permanent replacement for Woody. A marathon six-hour tribute to the fallen musician occurred in New Orleans last May involving more than a dozen prominent bass players, and “The Deepest End” (ATO), a bundled DVD and two-CD package, chronicles the event.
Gov’t Mule play the Grove in Anaheim tonight.