With a little help from musical friends
After bassist's death, Govt. Mule returns using all-star lineup
By Todd Leopold
(CNN) -- When Allen Woody died, he took a chunk of Gov't Mule with him.
Woody was the bassist for the Southern jam-rock band, a cornerstone of their power-trio sound. Just 43 years old, he died unexpectedly in August 2000 in a New York City hotel room. The rest of the band -- guitarist Warren Haynes and drummer Matt Abts -- was bereft.
Yet the Mule had to make another record. Haynes and Abts could cope with that, but they couldn't deal with finding a new bassist.
"The last thing we wanted to do was audition a long line of permanent bassists," Haynes says in a phone interview from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
The band hit upon a solution. Haynes and Abts would send invitations out to Woody's and their favorite bassists, marquee names ranging from Cream's Jack Bruce and Funkadelic's Bootsy Collins to Primus' Les Claypool, the Red Hot Chili Peppers' Flea and solo artist Me'Shell NgedeOcello. They didn't expect much.
Then, Haynes recalls, "One by one, everyone started accepting."
The result was three CDs' worth of music: last year's "The Deep End, Vol. 1" and the recently released two-CD set, "The Deep End, Vol. 2" (ATO Records).
No ego battles with celebrity collaborators
With rare exceptions, the albums were recorded live, which proved intimidating for Haynes and Abts at times.
"There was such a hodgepodge of emotion," Haynes says. "We're dealing with Woody's death, and all our heroes are showing up. It was sadness mixed with joy."
Despite the fame of many of the Mule's bassist collaborators, Haynes says there were no ego battles. "Everybody rose to the occasion," he says.
Even after a bassist had agreed, the band's job wasn't over. Haynes and Abts tried to match songs with each player's style and personality, sometimes digging into the band's catalog, other times writing something fresh. The group even tapped into the occasional cover song, which sometimes paid off with striking results.
For example, on "The Deep End, Vol. 1," Mike Watt of the Minutemen and fIREHOSE joined the group on the Creedence Clearwater Revival tune "Effigy." In the original, the tune is an angry dirge that closes out CCR's "Willy and the Poor Boys" album. In the Mule's version, it becomes a cathartic, rousing howl.
The band wasn't sure how to get in touch with Watt, but by the time it decided to team with the bassist, the grapevine was at full extension. Primus' Claypool, it turned out, knew Watt and gave the band his number. (Watt later led the band to Flea.) Watt came up a day early, Haynes says, and two things emerged: His favorite band was CCR, and it was CCR leader John Fogerty's birthday.
"We sent someone to Tower Records to buy every CCR CD to find something [unusual to play]," Haynes says. "Effigy" stood out as being a song the band could work with, changing the rhythms and stretching the chords. "It sure was fun," Haynes says. "It had taken on an Alice in Chains sound."
Touring, albums prove to be a tonic
"The Deep End" was originally intended to be a one-off, but the bounty of material prompted the band to release the records in two volumes a year apart.
"We realized 160 minutes is a lot to digest, even for a hard-core fan," Haynes says. "We were also waiting on some bass players."
Now, Haynes says, Gov't Mule is trying to re-create the records onstage as they tour North America. It isn't taking any chances; the band is touring with two regular bassists, and there's an open invitation to any of the "Deep End" participants to join the group onstage. Sometimes there have been as many as five bassists joining in.
The tour and albums have been a tonic, Haynes says.
"The Mule was founded on the chemistry the three of us had," he says. "It took a lot of convincing from close friends [to keep the band together]."
Other musicians were particularly supportive. Gov't Mule arose from the Allman Brothers, for which Haynes and Woody played, and a band that's no stranger to tragedy. Haynes and Abts also heard from members of Metallica and Blues Traveler and received an e-mail from ex-Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl.
Now, Gov't Mule has the energy to tour in support of "The Deep End" CDs through 2003, and Haynes will be contributing to the next Allman Brothers record.
Haynes said he is grateful for everything the music has provided.
"I think musicians are like a fraternity. ... We all live this crazy life that nobody understands," he says. "It has been really helpful."