Three years and many interim players after the death of its bassist, the band has a permanent replacement and is "incredibly psyched."
Gov't Mule's tour marks the first time since the death of founding member Allen Woody in 2000 that the band has a regular presence in the bass chair.
For some outfits, a change in bassists is a minor inconvenience. But in the case of the Mule, a collective dedicated to overlapping, interconnected conversations rather than look-at-me solos, it's a huge transition.
For the past few years, guitarist Warren Haynes and drummer Matt Abts have played with just about every bass player of stature, trying to determine whether their highly respected jam band should continue. At the same time, they sought creative ways to honor Woody. They started with loosely organized tributes and were stunned when virtually every figure in the bass pantheon _ including Les Claypool, Late Show With David Letterman's Will Lee, Jason Newsted and the Meters' George Porter Jr. _ agreed to sit in.
Some stayed for a set or two; some signed on for weeks. The revolving-door arrangement led to a pair of memorable recordings, 2001's The Deep End, Vol. 1 and a Vol. 2 issued last year, and an all-star show in New Orleans in May. The concert was captured for The Deepest End, a package of two CDs and a DVD released last month.
Now, Haynes says, he's "incredibly psyched" to have Andy Hess, who played in guitarist John Scofield's recent band, on board permanently.
"As great as it was working with all those bass players, we had to keep taking one step forward and one step back," Haynes, 43, said recently from a San Francisco hotel room. "We had to teach people songs we already knew over and over again. Once we decided that Gov't Mule was going to stay together, I think we envisioned the point of starting again, where we are right now, coming a lot sooner."
Not that Haynes, recently named the 23rd greatest guitarist of all time by Rolling Stone, needs another band. He has been on the road nearly nonstop all year, as part of the Allman Brothers, Gov't Mule and Phil Lesh and Friends, and as a solo artist.
"It's gone like this," said the Asheville, N.C., native, taking a deep breath to recount what may be the most packed schedule in rock:
"In January, (Gov't Mule) did a short tour with Andy playing bass, and that opened our eyes to a lot of possibilities. Then, in March, I had (a 13-show New York) run with the Allmans. Then I went straight into getting ready for the New Orleans show (that became The Deepest End), and from that into the Allmans over the summer, then rehearsals with Phil Lesh, now the Gov't Mule tour," which brings the band to the Tampa Theatre tonight.
Haynes said that he, Abts and keyboardist Danny Louis, now a Mule member, intend to explore realms they stumbled across while playing with the various bassists.
"The best thing about working with all those people was hearing the way they interjected themselves into what we're doing," Haynes said. "It became a great challenge to see . . . how radically the sound of the band could change depending on who was playing."
Gov't Mule has been morphing since its album debut in 1995. When Haynes, Woody and Abts got together, they were determined to reinvent the '60s rock power trio. Early recordings suggest a Southern-fried update of Cream.
As Haynes began working in other contexts, his approach changed: Mule's Life Before Insanity, the 2000 album on which he was the primary composer, exhibits greater attention to songwriting detail and more disarmingly earnest hooks than the band previously attempted.
Haynes believes the band's association with the jam world gave the wrong impression.
"People pigeonholed us as a power trio and as jammers, but we never just wanted that," he said. "We tried to continue growing, and I think what some people missed about us was that we had songs. We might jam on something weird for 20 minutes, then play a little four-minute country ditty."