PICTURED: Gov’t Mule will perform at Libbey Bowl in Ojai on June 19. Photo by Jay Sansone

by Dave Gil de Rubio for Last Word Features

As someone who cut his teeth growing up on the sounds of power trios like Cream and the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Warren Haynes always knew the blues were as important as the hard-rock riffing of those outfits. 

Blues has been a major part of Haynes’ musical expression, whether it was while he was a member of the Allman Brothers Band, doing his own thing as a solo artist or as a part of Gov’t Mule. So it should come as no surprise that the North Carolina native has always been hankering to record an all-blues record, something that came to fruition late last year with the release of Heavy Load Blues.

The pandemic-forced lockdown proved to be the perfect opportunity for Haynes and the rest of the Mule (drummer Matt Abts, keyboardist/guitarist Danny Louis and bassist Jorgen Carlsson) to set up shop at the Power Station New England and create an authentic blues sound via a combination of analog tape combined with vintage guitars, amps and equipment.

“I’ve been thinking about making a blues record for five or six years, so it’s been on the back burner for a while,” Haynes explained in a recent interview. “And then when the whole lockdown thing started, everybody was having to figure out how to deal with the new situation. Somehow, the thought of moving the blues record to the front burner kind of made sense. I also was writing tons of music and I don’t usually write many blues songs or ones that are considered to be blues songs. But I had written five or six over the past couple of years, so it was all kind of pointing in that direction. 

“We wanted to make two records, which we did by setting up in the studio in Connecticut and making two different records in two different rooms at the same time because we had all this time on our hands and I had all this new material,” he said. “We would literally go in the big room in the morning and record until about 9 p.m. for the upcoming Gov’t Mule record. And then around nine at night, we’d move into the small room, which we dubbed the Blues Room, and play blues the rest of the night and we just did that every day. Making the blues record didn’t take that long and we were only recording at night, which was great because the blues is meant to be played at night.”

The result yielded a deep dive into blues classics by the likes of Leroy Carr, Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker that wound up alongside a number of originals and stylistic left turns — such as a dip into the Tom Waits catalog. 

What makes Heavy Load Blues such a rich listening experience is that Gov’t Mule avoids cluttering the track list with hoary weekend warrior classics like “Hoochie Coochie Man” or “Sweet Home Chicago” and instead goes a little deeper into the genre’s canon, a strategy Haynes made sure to follow.

“I’ve been making a list [of songs I wanted to cover] for quite a while now,” Haynes said. “Whenever I’d hear a song I liked, I’d write it down with the idea that one of these days when I get around to writing a blues record, I might want to tackle this song and just put it on the list. Some of them I’ve thought about for years but some of them we added recently, like the Tom Waits tune ‘Make It Rain.’ I didn’t think about that until about two years ago when I was listening to that song. I thought it was just a blues song and thought about doing that because it seemed like a cool idea to not only include classic blues, but to maybe throw a curveball in there. I wanted to stray as far away from just playing a bunch of blues favorites as possible. I wanted to cover Howlin’ Wolf, Elmore James, Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland and Junior Wells, but I didn’t want to do the obvious stuff that everybody would choose. It was also important that the original songs and the cover songs both sounded like the same record. I didn’t want any of it to feel like it didn’t belong.”

Now, as has long been the case for Haynes and the Mule, the road beckons like an old friend, particularly after fluctuating COVID-19 numbers forced the band to cancel and reschedule dates from late 2021. Fans can expect plenty of music off Heavy Load Blues along with a smattering of songs from the next studio effort of original material slated to drop later this year. A slew of American dates will be followed by the Mule heading over the pond to Europe, always keeping an eye on what the pandemic might serve up.

“We’re monitoring the science, like everybody else, and we just have to be cautious,” Haynes said. “The entire business is forced into this cautious sort of situation and rightly so. We’re just going to take it one step at a time. [As for the new project], one of the things that Dickey Betts and I talked about way back when we were writing for the Allman Brothers was how important and fun it is to write for the strengths of the band. When you have a project on the horizon like that, it makes you focus on writing that way and the result is always good.”


Gov’t Mule performs on Sunday, June 19, at 5 p.m. at Libbey Bowl, 210 S. Signal St., Ojai. For tickets and more information, visit libbeybowl.org