Guitarist Warren Haynes tried to ignore the ringing phone early in the morning of Aug. 26, 2000, but when it didn't stop, he knew something was wrong. When he finally answered, he received the news that his friend and Gov't Mule bandmate Allen Woody had died that morning. In the grief and mourning that followed, Haynes and Gov't Mule drummer Matt Abts never considered continuing as Gov't Mule. Their only concern was organizing a concert to benefit an education fund for Woody's young daughter.
"We did the 'One for Woody' concert at Roseland Ballroom (in New York City), with Dave Schools from Widespread Panic on bass," remembers Haynes. "Then we started to get all kinds of phone calls, letters and faxes from people in the industry, who had been in similar situations. Phil Lesh (of the Grateful Dead) was one of the first people to call, and he said he knew what it was like to lose someone that you have such a profound musical bond with. The Allmans went through the same thing with Duane [Allman] and Berry Oakley. I got a phone call from James Hetfield of Metallica; they lost their original bass player. The guys in Blues Traveler lost Bobby Sheehan. Dave Grohl wrote me a letter about losing Kurt Cobain.
"They were all very emotional, and they all said the same thing," continues Haynes. "They said it doesn't feel like you can go on, but you have to. The music is the most important thing to keep alive. Things change, and in the beginning, we refused to acknowledge that it was never going to be the same, and we had to take a turn in a new direction."
It was a daunting task, and not just for obvious reasons. Gov't Mule was born out of a leap of faith by Haynes and Woody, who in the mid-90s left secure positions in the Allman Brothers Band after helping the venerable ensemble make its improbable and acclaimed comeback. Their new venture was also somewhat of a musical risk, as Haynes, Woody and Abts resurrected the improvisational power trio format, taking their cue from Cream and Jimi Hendrix's Band of Gypsies. "Nobody was doing that anymore, and we felt like it was a lost art," says Haynes.
Over the course of five albums and relentless touring, Gov't Mule established itself as a blues-rock powerhouse, with Haynes staking a claim as one of the finest slide-guitar players of his generation, with Woody and Abts responding with the improvisational prowess of a jazz rhythm section. It was a musical equation that Haynes and Abts didn't feel comfortable replicating in any revised Gov't Mule lineup. "That was the main decision: not to remain a trio," says Haynes. "If we were going to keep it together and move the music and legacy forward, we couldn't be a trio anymore, and we didn't want to put pressure on the audience to be comparing it to the past."
A keyboardist was added to the lineup (famed Allman Brothers/Rolling Stones sideman Chuck Leavell is on the band's current tour, and Dave Schools and the Allmans' Oteil Burbridge alternate bass duties), and Haynes and Abts decided not to audition for a permanent replacement for Woody. Instead Haynes started making a few calls to bassists that had inspired Woody, to gauge the interest in a tribute album to his late friend. "The response was pretty overwhelming," he says. What started as one album mushroomed into two albums and a documentary, with more than 25 guest bassists -- a who's-who of funk and rock bass players -- participating in the sessions.
The newly released first CD, The Deep End Volume 1, includes Jack Bruce of Cream, Larry Graham (Sly and the Family Stone), Bootsy Collins, Deep Purple's Roger Glover, punk icon Mike Watt, the Who's John Entwistle, and Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. (George Porter Jr. plays on the second volume, scheduled for release next spring.) The results are powerful and emotionally stirring, ranging from a haunting cover of the Creedence Clearwater Revival obscurity "Effigy," to the soul anthem "Soulshine," featuring guest vocals from Little Milton.
The Deep End arrives as the band's audience and popularity is surging; Gov't Mule's late-night show at House of Blues on Oct. 27 is already sold out. "We started seeing the audience grow dramatically right before Woody died," says Haynes. "You could feel the momentum building. Now there's more young kids, and they're coming up and saying 'This is my first show, and all my friends are talking about the band.' The word on Gov't Mule is growing. It's just a shame that Woody didn't get to see it come to fruition."
- Gov't Mule's new CD, The Deep End, Volume 1, pays tribute to late bassist Allen Woody.