The ongoing celebration of the Mule continues with this special, 2 CD release showcasing the now legendary collaboration between Gov’t Mule and John Scofield all the way back in 1999. Having already reviewed the excellent ‘Dark Side of the Mule’ collection, which saw the Mule tackling both a full live set of their own and a selection of well-chosen Pink Floyd Covers, my expectations for this set were high not least because every live Gov’t Mule concert is its own unique experience, completely different from what has gone before meaning that any and every live Mule album is a genuine boon for fans of the band. This one, of course, is of particular note because it not only features the immensely talented John Scofield, but it is also one of the last concerts before Mule Bassist Allen Woody sadly passed away and it has, therefore, been high on the Gov’t Mule fan wish list for a long time.
As you might expect, if you’ve already checked out ‘Dark side of the Mule’ the quality of this set is pristine. Gov’t Mule are a band who are as meticulous about documenting their live performances as they are wonderfully spontaneous in performance. Listening to the disc for the first time, the first thing you notice is how crisp the audio is (rare for live work) with John Scofield’s guitar ringing out clearly over Gov’t Mule’s wonderfully jazzy backdrop. The skill of the players is represented with perfect clarity and, as the collection is instrumental, there is no fight between vocals and instrumentation, so often a problem with live discs. Featuring just ten tracks, ‘Sco-Mule’ still impressively clocks in at nearly three hours with each track proving to be a lengthy exploration of the sound and space offered up by various elements of jazz.
The album opens with ‘Hottentot’, an eleven minute track which sets the scene perfectly. Relatively laid back, the guitar playing is fluid and wonderfully improvised whilst the band lay down a tight backdrop behind. ‘Tom thumb’, however, allows Allen to shine as his smooth bass work becomes a lead element in its own right. Also coming into the spotlight on this track is Dan Matrazzo, who joined the core Mule trio of Warren Haynes, Allen Woody and Matt Abts as keyboardist, and whose lead runs on the track easily challenge those of the guitars. As the track progresses the playing becomes more frenetic, and for all that this is a celebration of the wonderful world of jazz, it is clear that the Mule aren’t going to let anyone forget that they’re a rock band. Things take a turn for the Miles Davis with ‘doin’ it to death’, a swirling, progressive-jazz piece of work that echoes and shakes with psychedelic fervour. The song takes its time forming into some sort of shape and listening to the band, teetering on the edge of collapse but somehow holding it together to finally launch into a swinging cut is thrilling stuff. The song is a hotbed of some truly ecstasy-inducing improvisation and listening to the band pass the lead back and forth is never less than awe-inspiring. In what feels like a heartbeat we’re into ‘birth of the mule’, a fifteen minute piece that moves between typical jazz tropes and some heavier riffs which give the piece a more visceral, rock edge that jazz can so often lack, the link between blues, hard rock and jazz has rarely been rendered in such clarity. It highlights the genius of this collaboration, and it’s remarkable to note that each of these pieces (all in excess of ten minutes) passes by far quicker than their expanded run time would suggest. The title track is up next and, once again, it sees Allen’s wonderful bass work to shine as the guitarists weave their magic around it. The final song on the first CD and the final track of the album proper, ‘Kind of bird’ is the storming highlight of the concert. At eighteen minutes long it sees some of the albums most stunning soloing, each musician clearly lost in the hazy light of inspiration as they unleash some truly dizzying lead work over the throbbing backdrop. It’s one hell of a conclusion to what must have been an amazing concert and it certainly leaves the listener wanting more as the whole thing seems to have passed with extraordinary speed.
Happily, there is more. The second disc offers up a treasure-trove of extras with two bonus tracks – ‘pass the peas’ and ‘devil likes it slow’ as well as two alternate versions of tracks on the record – ‘kind of bird’ and ‘hottentot’ and an edit of ‘Afro-blue’. Of the bonus tracks, ‘Pass the peas’ allows Dan Matrazzo more opportunities to shine with his keyboard work and the track, overall, has a chunkier, darker vibe than the songs on offer on the main album disc. In contrast, ‘the devil likes it slow’ is a fast-paced jazz blitz with some stinging leads and whilst it’s a great song, you can see why the band chose to include it as a bonus track rather than place at the heart of the album itself. A frenetic, hard-rocking beast it’s jazz with a Hendrix touch and it flat-out rocks. The alternate versions are a pleasure to hear and, for anyone who’s caught up with the recent legacy editions of albums by the likes of Dave Brubeck or Charles Mingus, one of the most pleasing elements of jazz is hearing the different ways that artists interpret the same song depending on their mood. Alternate versions are a worthy inclusion and they make this a satisfyingly complete package for Gov’t Mule fans.
Whilst ‘Dark side of the mule’ was hugely enjoyable, there was a slight feeling that the band played it very safe with their interpretations of the great Pink Floyd. Their performance was hard… almost impossible… to fault, but there is a strong argument that ‘Sco-Mule’ with its stunning improvisational nature eclipses that performance and offers up a wild side of the Mule as the band play with glorious abandon. Perfectly recorded and presented, this is an absolutely essential edition to any Mule fan’s collection and a pretty near-essential addition to the collection of any jazz fan. A genuine treasure, ‘Sco-Mule’ is a wonderful record and a brilliant tribute to the sadly departed Allen Woody.