As an unrelenting Gov’t Mule performance slipped past the 2½ hour mark last night at the Opera House, guitarist and band chieftain Warren Haynes decided to check in with the tireless audience before him.
“Are you still with us, Kentucky?”
It was a fair question. The crowd most decidedly was, although the Mule had already put patrons through the paces. The first set in the veteran jam band’s first Lexington concert in over 15 years opened with the guitar drenched ‘60s gospel of the Staple Singers’ Hammer and Nails, tore through the rugged (and, briefly, reggae-fied) original Banks of the Deep End and later eased into the old school soul of the Ray Charles classic I Believe to My Soul (goosed by Haynes’ hearty power chords) before hitting intermission with Kind of Bird, the 1990 instrumental from Haynes’ early days in the Allman Brothers Band. The latter last night sounded more than swing-worthy even as the guitarist worked in quotes from another Allmans classic (Les Brers in A Minor) and keyboardist Danny Louis took a mischievous turn on trombone.
But Haynes must have known the crowd still had his back. His audience reality check fell in the middle of a second set stretch that offered, in reverse order, a remarkable capsule summation of Gov’t Mule’s recorded history.
First up was Captured, a blast of psychedelic cool from 2013’s Shout album. Then Haynes rewound the repertoire for Mule, a swampy groove excursion from the band’s self-titled 1995 debut album. Last night’s version was far more expansive sounding than the original, though, with a lengthy clavinet-style jam from Louis. Such playfulness underscored a stylistic variance that made the trio lineup that first cut the tune sound positively streamlined in comparison.
Finally, there was another blast from Haynes’ pre-Mule days, Soulshine. Served as an encore, last night’s version was probably the most concise performance of the night. The preceding acres of grooves, solos and guitar-led jams all sounded splendid. But it was also cool to this hear this Haynes gem, with its sparkling Southern soul guitar lead, thriving without all the heavy artillery. In a night dominated by fearsome instrumental interplay, Soulshine was a spring-like coda, a sunny shelter away from the rest of the storm the Mule kicked up.