On the year's hottest night, Gov’t Mule cooks up one of most compelling Meijer Gardens concerts ever E-mail
by John Sinkevics

The headlines could say it in so many different ways.

“Gov’t Mule really kicked it Thursday night.”

“The Mule had fans braying for more.”

“Warren Haynes – and the sun – turned up the heat on a sweltering summer evening.”

band3 Puns aside, Gov’t Mule and its diehard fan base worked up quite the sweat on Thursday in the band’s first-ever appearance at Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park, bringing blues-tilted rock and dazzling musicianship to the outdoor amphitheater on the absolute hottest night of the year.

The band even paid tribute to a Grand Rapids legend by way of Chicago – blues guitarist Donald Kinsey – who joined Gov’t Mule on stage for a blistering two-song encore, giving the bluesman who moved to West Michigan several years ago the spotlight that he richly deserves as he traded scintillating licks with Haynes.

Indeed, the evening’s scorching instrumental prowess matched the torrid temperature to the delight of devotees, many of whom likely have seen and followed Gov’t Mule for years in Grateful Dead-like fashion.

“We don’t have the largest number of fans of any band out there,” frontman Haynes told me in a recent interview. “But I would not hesitate to say that our fans are as hardcore, or more hardcore, than anybody’s.”

No kidding.

Some of these Mule fans are so hardcore, you could ask pretty much any one of these uber-fans about a song in the set and they’d not only know the title, but could probably recite all the lyrics and even tell you the last time it had been performed live. Many follow “the Mule” around the country every summer.

One of two fans I found taping the show at the amphitheater with their high-end microphones told me that he’d attended more than 200 Gov’t Mule concerts since 1994.

There’s ample reason for such avid devotion as Thursday night’s 2-hour-and-22-minute show so dramatically demonstrated: Haynes is a master of his instrument, vacillating seamlessly between blues, rock, soul, funk and jazz – a virtuoso who’s deservedly often ranked among the top electric guitarists of all time.

With his brilliant Gov’t Mule bandmates -- drummer Matt Abts, bassist Jorgen Carlsson and keyboard player and guitarist Danny Louis – giving Haynes’ Southern rock- and soul-fueled music real muscle, the band stretched out on 14 songs over two sets, frequently tossing in snippets and melodies from other artists (Jimi Hendrix, Johnny Cash, Bo Diddley, Led Zeppelin, even The Turtles’ “So Happy Together”).

mulecrossing Starting with “Hammer and Nails” and “Banks of the Deep End,” Haynes and company continued their tradition of reinventing new set lists every night on tour, digging out older tunes “we haven’t played in a while” and showing astounding versatility in the process.

One particularly enthusiastic fan kept calling Haynes “a badass” on guitar, and it’s impossible to argue the point as he continually squeezed out ultra-tasty leads with a soulful touch and an impressive array of textures on “Slackjaw Jezebel,” “I Think You Know What I Mean,” “Time to Confess,” “Effigy,” “Mule” and “Brand New Angel.”

Indeed, by 9 p.m., with a cool breeze finally wafting through the amphitheater, pretty much all of the heat and sparks and fire were coming from the stage, courtesy of Haynes.

And it only got steamier during the blues-drenched encore, when Kinsey and Haynes further electrified the crowd with solos on “Feel Like Breaking Up Somebody’s Home” and “That’s What Love Will Make You Do.”

(See some video snippets from that encore and more at www.localspins.com. Kinsey, by the way, will perform at Grand Rapids’ Fourth of July celebration at Ah Nab Awen Park on Wednesday night.)

Thursday’s show kicked off quite a run of four high-profile concerts at Meijer Gardens in a five-day span: Legendary singer Emmylou Harris performs at 7 tonight (Friday) with opener Field Report, singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright rolls in on Sunday, and Huey Lewis & the News will return to Meijer Gardens (with Katie Todd) to play on Monday night.

But Gov’t Mule will be an incredibly hard act to follow, after an incendiary performance that ignited one of the amphitheater’s hardest-partying crowds ever.

Haynes had cautioned me that a special live performance often starts brewing from the get-go.

“Usually, it happens right from the beginning. A great show or magical show is a combination of the right night, with the right audience. For a band like us that really plays off the audience and the energy that the audience gives us, that’s such an important factor. You know, we’re blessed with an amazing audience that will take this musical journey with us.”

On Thursday, that trip by Mule – as sultry and sweaty as it was at times – took Meijer Gardens concertgoers to a pretty rare and wondrous place, with Haynes firmly at the reins.

Veteran music critic and entertainment writer John Sinkevics maintains his own Spins on Music website at www.localspins.com, covering and commenting on West Michigan’s music scene – a site where you can also read more about Wednesday night’s show. Photos also by John Sinkevics.

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Published: June 29, 2012

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