If you walk through the Arts Quad, you are many times more likely to see a Jimi Hendrix or Grateful Dead shirt than you are to see a t-shirt advertising almost any contemporary act. How does the current music industry cope with this favoritism and the greatness of music from the late ’60s and early ’70s? Some seem to reply, “Just live those days as long as possible.” This seems to be the solution Gov’t Mule, an experimental blues band, applies. The group put on a show Saturday night at the State Theatre and presented an act that was essentially a comforting haze of sounds, rhythms and lyrics echoing the ’60s.
This presentation aligned with the ethos of the crowd, populated with many who spent their adolescence during the blossoming of psychedelic rock. Bearded boomers, bikers and bluesmen filled the ornate Renaissance-style theater that turns 84 this year. The listeners received a set list so similar to one possible in the Age of Aquarius that their nostalgia drives were definitely satisfied. The loudest audience response came during Mule’s elaborate, whining rendition of The Beatles’ “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” and a reggae/raga slow-down of The Steve Miller Band classic “The Joker.” For attendees largely in the reflection stage of their lives, looking back at their youth and identifying with the lyrics was an obvious, sentimental hit.
The set list also covered “She Said, She Said” and “Tomorrow Never Knows,” both by The Beatles; “Don’t Step on the Grass, Sam,” a ’60s pro-marijuana legalization hit from Steppenwolf; “Higher Ground” by Stevie Wonder; the end of Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog” and a song Led Zeppelin seemingly plagiarized: “How Many More Years” by Howlin’ Wolf (sound like Zeppelin’s “How Many More Times” at all?).
The original songs from Mule bore the same influences. “Streamline Woman,” one of its most successful hits, has a clear Grateful Dead semblance (check out The Dead’s “Easy Wind”). Much of the lyrics reflected themes of the blues and countercultural generations, not to mention the band’s name: Gov’t Mule, an allusion to our obsequity to the “man.” This thumbing of the nose at authority was a rallying cry of the ’60s that is often subject to parody today.
The easiest comparison for Gov’t Mule is to the Allman Brothers. Mule’s late cofounder and bass guitarist, Allen Woody, was a member of the Brothers after they reunited in 1989. In his tenure with the Brothers, Allen played with guitarist Warren Haynes, future cofounder of Gov’t Mule and associated member of Phil Lesh’s Further, the post-Jerry Garcia incarnation of the Grateful Dead. Mule still plays many tunes by the Allman Brothers, Led Zeppelin and Grateful Dead and attracts a following left over from the deaths and disengagements of many of these bands. In order to maintain a sound quality comparable to these former acts, their website claims that they are “one of the hardest working bands in rock history.”
Gov’t Mule’s deficit of originality is definitely bridged by its incredible technical dexterity. The opener — The Lee Boys, a Parliament Funkadelic and Taj Mahal mashup — suggests that these bands are out to service an audience who doesn’t want change. Even though the band was relatively stationary on stage and the audience members were forcibly stationary in their seats, the energy of the music sustained interest. The ’60s and ’70s were an incredible Renaissance of arts, culture and passion that was so impressive that it warrants a lengthy afterlife. You may call these concerts wakes of waning genres or just plain irrelevant, but celebrating the past is much more successful and plausible than celebrating the future.