I’ll be honest. As a life-long Pink Floyd fan I tend to look askance at anyone tackling their music. The sad truth is that more bad Pink Floyd covers exist than good ones. Over the years we’ve been treated to endless bad versions of ‘another brick in the wall’, the scissor f*****g sisters massacre of ‘comfortably numb’, the inexcusably bad Queensryche / Dream Theater cover of the same track… man, the list goes on and on. So, the prospect of Gov’t Mule, a band I hold in high regard, performing a 90 minute selection of Floyd covers is one that I approach with a good deal of trepidation. Available either as a single CD with only the Pink Floyd songs (less ‘speak to me’, ‘on the run’ and ‘the great gig in the sky’), a double vinyl (less ‘speak to me’ and ‘on the run’) and as a 3CD/1DVD box set with all fourteen Floyd tracks and a selection of Gov’t Mule tracks as well, the smart money is on the box set because the Gov’t Mule tracks help to put the whole concert in context.
The first disc is entirely given over to Gov’t Mule’s impressive back catalogue and it’s a brilliantly recorded live blast of their patented blues-orientated jams. Tracks like ‘bad little doggie’ and, in particular, the stunning ‘gameface’ are built for the live environment and the band’s performance is loose enough to groove yet tight enough, thanks to the immense camaraderie of the musicians, to dazzle on numerous occasions. This opening, eight track, performance, alongside the closing pair of tracks, place the Floyd numbers into their appropriate place – at the centre of the show, rather than as the show – and it makes much more sense this way, not least when ‘gameface’ breaks down into a beautifully Floydian jam with the stabs of organ summoning the ghost of Richard Wright as the band jam in a manner that the Floyd themselves last indulged in around about the time they decamped to Pompeii. In short the opening tracks lay bare Gov’t Mule’s claim to Floydian authenticity – they capture the spirit of Floyd before they started touring as an army rather than a band – with the result that Gov’t Mule perfectly capture the heady, psychedelic atmosphere that Floyd so successfully conjured at the peak of their popularity.
In truth it is a strange mix of Floyd that Gov’t Mule have opted for. Tracks that would seem to suit them from the days of ‘meddle’ (with the exception of ‘fearless’) and ‘saucerful of Secrets’ (with the exception of ‘one of these days’) are overlooked in favour of latter day Floyd with the emphasis being on ‘DSOTM’ (five tracks) and ‘WYWH’ (four tracks). Aside from that, only ‘animals’ and ‘the wall’ get a look in with the brief ‘pigs on the wing part 2’ dispatched as a prelude to ‘shine on you crazy diamond’ and ‘comfortably numb’ offered up as a gift to the God of solos. It’s not the set list I would have anticipated as it tends to favour songs that were meticulously constructed and which remain incredibly well known whereas the opportunity here might have been to bring some of the lesser known gems from the Floyd’s expansive back catalogue to life.
The performance kicks off with ‘one of these days’ and immediately it is clear that Gov’t mule’ are as in thrall to the originals as the rest of us. Whilst the solos are much more to the fore than Gilmour tended allow (compare the blistering wail here to Gilmour’s restrained work on ‘live in Pompeii’) the bass and synth work could almost be from a Floyd show circa 1972 and the result is a surprisingly faithful take on the original. Next up is ‘fearless’, a song covered by numerous artists from Low (who turned in a surprisingly excellent version) to the Black Crowes, and which Gov’t Mule play beautifully. A warm take on the song, the most surprising feature is that when Gov’t Mule employ jangly, clean guitar on the bridge between chorus and verse it becomes clear just how much the Floyd influenced the likes of Sonic Youth with their discordant guitar work. It’s ‘WYWH’ territory next as the band briefly tease with ‘pigs on the wing part two’ from ‘Animals’ before segueing into ‘Shine on you crazy diamond parts 1-5’ followed by the caustic ‘have a cigar’ which, although solid, still doesn’t quite capture Nick Harper’s stinging sarcasm, although the band do change the line to ask “which one’s the mule?” These are both excellent versions of familiar tracks and there is no doubting the adrenalin of hearing these tracks in the live environment once again, even if it is odd that one of the world’s finest jam bands opted to play the Floyd’s least jammy songs.
The five tracks from ‘DSOTM’ get an airing next with ‘speak to me’ leading into ‘breathe’ followed by the manic synth workout, ‘on the run’ and the beautiful coda ‘time’. It’s a triptych that is firmly cemented in the Floyd canon, having been played by Pink Floyd, Roger Waters and David Gilmour in this configuration for more-or-less the past thirty years and the only real surprise is that the band also include ‘the great gig in the sky’ (complete with wailing backing singer unleashes a surprisingly gutsy take on Clare Torry’s unforgettable vocal) in their brief run through of one of rock’s most celebrated albums. The band then dispatch a blistering, extended version of ‘money’ that has more in common with the ‘delicate sound of thunder’ version than the original and is all the better for it before concluding with a decent version of ‘comfortably numb’ (a song so awkward to balance that even Floyd members have messed it up from time to time) that adds more piano to the mix and which does not disappoint when it comes to the climactic solo.
The third disc adds just four final songs to the mix – two Floyd tracks (‘shine on you crazy diamond parts 6-9’ & ‘wish you were here’) alongside two Gov’t Mule tracks, ‘million miles from yesterday’ and the lengthy ‘blind man in the dark’ – although these four tracks alone equate to almost forty minutes of music. Perhaps the highlight is hearing the band run through the second half of ‘shine on…’ a track frequently ignored by Floyd members (although David Gilmour did a great version of it for his acoustic show at the Robert Wyatt’s Meltdown) whilst the closing ‘gov’t mule tracks are also most welcome, especially the lengthy ‘blind man in the dark’.
Overall ‘Dark side of the mule’ is a concert disc that only makes sense when listened to in its expanded edition. The Floyd tracks are played beautifully, but also so straight that they add little to the originals. Those hoping for a psychedelic jam session or wild interpretation of Floyd originals had best steer clear for these are cover versions reproduced with a faithfulness that is impressively faultless and yet surprisingly staid. However, heard in the wider context of the Gov’t Mule tracks which bookend the concert it becomes a three hour celebration of Gov’t Mule and their wider roots and the experience is all the better for it. Ultimately this release is intended as part of the ongoing celebrations of Gov’t Mule’s many years in the business which began with the excellent ‘shout!’ album and that is how the album should be taken. The single disc, Floyd only album, I would argue is somewhat redundant – this is all about wonderful, glorious excess and nothing less than the multi-disc, three hour version will do. Hugely enjoyable, ‘Dark side of the mule’ does what any good selection of covers should do – it makes you want to head off and listen to the originals (never far from my stereo anyway) once more whilst the Gov’t mule tracks make you want to dance around the room. Overall this is a worthwhile album for Gov’t Mule fans and worth exploring for curious Floyd fans who have not yet encountered the Mule, but it offers little that is revelatory. If you want to celebrate with the Mule you won’t be disappointed, but the uninitiated should probably explore one of their studio albums first.
For the curious, here’s a clip of the band playing ‘have a cigar’.