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Gov't Mule - The Tel-Star Sessions (Album Review)

Friday, 12 August 2016 Written by Simon Ramsay

If this archival release from American rockers Gov’t Mule were a blockbuster movie, its trailer might sound something like this: “If you thought you knew how it began you’d be wrong. Dead wrong. Buried for over two decades. Unearthed for their fans. Prepare to witness the genesis of a southern rock legend. Brace yourselves for the birth of the Mule.”

It was June 1994. Warren Haynes and Allen Woody, guitarist and bassist with the Allman Brothers Band, were looking to scratch their creative itches while the group was on hiatus. They hooked up with drummer Matt Abts and, determined to recapture the essence of power trios like Cream and The Jimi Hendrix Experience, decamped to Tel-Star Studios in Florida to bash out what was intended to be a self-produced, low budget debut.  

That album was subsequently shelved amid increased interest from a number of record companies, leading to 1995’s more professional self-titled bow by a band who were already outgrowing side-project status. 

‘The Tel-Star Sessions’ features those initial recordings in all their rough-hewn glory, and although eight of its 10 cuts are early versions of songs that appear on the band’s first two records, they’ve been newly mixed and mastered and showcase what, in spite of its primitive origins, would have been a powerful opening shot.

Where their debut features improved production values and more assured performances – particularly Haynes’ vocals - these versions, recorded live on the studio floor, allow the visceral energy and burgeoning telepathic interplay to take centre stage. Familiar fare like the grungy Monkey Hill and heavy stoner blues of Mother Earth are wonderfully raw and gritty in their embryonic states.

The prospect of hearing most bands’ discarded material isn’t alluring, but Gov’t Mule aren’t most bands. Haynes and company never play any song the same way twice, with each performance boasting a unique spontaneity and magic. That’s evident throughout this album and devotees will find plenty of Easter eggs to uncover when it comes to the songs’ micro and macro variations.

Blind Man In The Dark, for example, is in a lower key, featuring a different drum pattern and completely fresh jam passage. It doesn’t pop with the same verve of the ‘Dose’ version, but is full of dirt, sweat and musical muscle.  Elsewhere, the slip-sliding groove of Rocking Horse and deliriously funky Left Coast Groovies showcase alternate intros and there’s a wealth of improvisational brilliance flowing through the solo section of every song.

The real treat, though, is the inclusion of two never-before-heard tracks.  The Same Thing is an absolute peach, packed with bluesy southern licks and an exceptional closing jam, while their smoking cover of ZZ Top’s Just Got Paid – with Haynes’ scorpion-sting slide at its most cutting – is worth the price of the album alone. Finally, it’s great to hear the late Woody again. He dances up and down his fretboard as loud, proud and fearless as ever, with the dirty distortion on his bass immensely forceful beneath Haynes’ exquisite soloing.

Although it was right to put these recordings on ice, as Gov’t Mule’s debut is a more confident and stylistically varied offering, ‘The Tel-Star Sessions’ is a superb release thanks to a bare-boned sonic sparseness that’s like listening to a ferocious bar band fighting fires in a dangerous deep south roadhouse. And you can stick that line on the movie poster too.

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