This would have been the most variedly accessible, hit-worthy album of Gov’t Mule’s career — even if they hadn’t invited along a raft of famous folks to join them for a second-disc sing-along.
Initially, the idea of an And Friends project from Gov’t Mule, quite frankly, sounded like a disappointment ready to happen. After all, Warren Haynes and Co. have — since their 1995 eponymous debut — become more than simply a side gig for the long-time Allman Brothers guitarist. This group, which also features co-founder Matt Abts at the drums, as well as keyboardist Danny Louis and bassist Jorgen Carlsson, has developed its own air-tight chemistry, its own musical specificity, its own devoted followers. As such, a guest star-flecked album (like a covers project or a greatest-hits set), at least at first, felt like a stop-gap measure for a group that needed nothing of the sort.
Warren’s busy schedule — he also tours with members of the Grateful Dead, and hosts the annual Christmas Jam — had contributed to the longest lag yet between original Gov’t Mule releases, dating back to 2010′s perfectly titled Mulennium. Before that, the band had issued new product, like clockwork, for each of the previous 11 years — having only missed hitting that annual mark in 1997.
Come to find out, however, Shout! (due on September 24, 2013) is a different kind of And Friends concept: Gov’t Mule’s debut for Blue Note is being issued a two-album set, with one disc devoted to a straight-ahead run through of the new music, and the second featuring guests like Elvis Costello, Dr. John, Glenn Hughes, Dave Matthews, Steve Winwood, Ben Harper and others. That gives those who are interested in comparing and contrasting the opportunity to do so, and those who aren’t a chance to enjoy Shout! unencumbered by these well-meaning intrusions.
The rumbling “World Boss” sets a loose, confident tone that the album never swerves away from. That’s not to say that Shout! gets stuck in a groove. Far from it, in fact, by turns you’ll find Gov’t Mule smartly building upon their sturdy base of powerful blues-inflected jams. That’s them, for instance, doing a funky mind meld with Sly and the Family Stone on the wah wah-driven “(How Could You) Stoop So Low,” and diving into the mystery and magic of the Band on “Forsaken Savior,” and settling into a reggae-ish bounce for “Scared To Live,” and brilliantly channeling Traffic on “When the World Gets Small.” It’s a compulsively listenable album.
As for Disc 2, Hughes’ free-wheeling interpretation of “No Reward” (really, as expected) is a stand-out moment. After stints in Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, Gary Moore and Black Country Communion, Hughes has taken to referring to himself, somewhat prosaically, as the Voice of Rock — and moments like this make the point difficult to argue. Dr. John, Harper, Toots Hibbert and Winwood are well matched to the material, though not necessarily as revelatory.
Jim James gamely attempts to best Haynes’ deeply, deeply emotional vocal on “Captured,” but (again, as expected) the My Morning Jacket star falls just short. In fact, the only other truly essential interpretation on Shout! might be Costello’s, simply because “Funny Little Tragedy” is so perfectly tailored both for Gov’t Mule and, in the listening, to Costello, as well.
No matter. Shout! might just end up being the biggest album of Gov’t Mule’s career, if for no other reason than its ability to lure in new ears from the fanbases of their various collaborative performers. Hopefully, they’ll come for the Grace Potter, but stay for one of the band’s most complete efforts yet.