Gov’t Mule – ‘Dub Side Of The Mule’ Box Set Review

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Of the Gov’t Mule anniversary issues to date we have seen the Pink Floyd-referencing ‘dark side of the mule’, the wonderful jazz collaboration of ‘Sco-mule’ and we are still anticipating the collected Stones-covers set ‘stoned side of the mule’. However, of the collection, my personal favourite, somewhat unexpectedly, is ‘dub side of the mule’, a brilliant collaboration with Toots Hibbert that sees the Mule deliver their own unique spin on reggae. I was surprised because, in all honesty, I’ve never been a huge fan of reggae rock collaborations (perhaps the scars of various ill-fated reggae exploits from the likes of David Bowie, Guns ‘n’ roses and Eric Clapton are still too fresh), and yet ‘dub side of the mule’ is an absolute gem of a record that melds the sun-kissed joy of reggae to the gnarled blues of Gov’t mule with consummate skill.

Packaged as a four disc set, ‘dub side…’ features three CDs of material (an exhaustive collection) that features one disc of originals (more or less), one disc of reggae influenced rock featuring Toots Hibbert and a final disc of (predominantly) covers featuring guest appearance from Greg Allman and friends and John Popper. The fourth disc is a DVD of the reggae performance mixed in both 2.0 and 5.1. It is a generous package and it falls down only in the physical detailing, with Provogue having opted to package the release with only three disc trays housed in a digi-pack with the booklet and DVD hidden under the far left and far right disc trays respectively. It is an awkward arrangement that risks scratching the DVD and it’s neither as smart nor as easy to use as the excellent fold out package used for ‘dark side of the mule’. That gripe aside, ‘dub side of the mule’ is the best of the anniversary packages with its expanded track listing, excellent production and brief, yet well designed, booklet.

The first CD is one of the best live albums the Mule have put their name to in its own right. There is a little something of the mule for everyone here, with the epic highlights being the beautiful ‘so weak, so strong’ which is sung with so much passion and power that you can feel the emotion flooding from the stage; and a simply dazzling ‘unring the bell’ which is as perfect a mix of swirling psychedelia and dub reggae as you could ever wish to hear. Also amongst the wonders found on this stunning opening set is a cracking version of ‘whiter shade of pale’, a solo-filled ‘Sco-mule’, the evergreen ‘thorazine shuffle’ and a reggae-fuelled cover of the Rolling Stones’ ‘play with fire’ recast as an echoing, Jamaican jam workout complete with soulful horns and gospel backing vocals. Thus the band cheerfully predict the second half of the set and the only shame here is that this (near perfect) part of the set was not included on the DVD. Nonetheless, if the album only included this disc and nothing more I would wholeheartedly recommend it as it demonstrates exactly the wonderful diversity of Gov’t mule that makes them so beloved, and it successfully emphasizes just how special any Gov’t mule gig truly is.

Having built the audience up with the mother of all opening sets, CD 2 of this expanded, deluxe set, is where we get to the heart of ‘dub side of the mule’. Opening with ‘I’m a ram’, Gov’t Mule keep the presence of Toots under wraps a little longer and it’s not until the second track, ’54-46 was my number’ that he finally appears to a rapturous response. Watching the DVD, you get the impression that this concert (filmed on Dec 31, 2006) must have been one of the greatest New Year’s concerts ever staged. With the stage decked out with palm trees and looking for all the world like a beach front, the roar from the audience affirms that the assembled throng truly are “ready for the continuation of our funky reggae party”. As Toots strolls on stage, it’s clear that this is a special moment for audience and band alike and he works the audience like the seasoned pro he is, setting the crowd ablaze and then leading the band into his own ’54-46’. It’s a beautiful sun-kissed set that the band kick out. From ‘hard to handle’ with its horns and soulful feel via the beautiful ‘true love is hard to find’ and classic ‘pressure drop’ to a wild cover of Radiohead’s ‘let down’, the emphasis is on delivering a laid-back yet exuberant set and it’s impossible to listen without feeling enveloped in the positive energy emanating from the performers even at the remove of listening at home rather than actually being there. It is a testament to the musical prowess of Gov’t mule that not a moment feels forced or poorly executed – this is a band playing music that they feel a genuine affinity for and the result is a beautiful collision of Toot’s wonderfully joyful reggae and the Mule’s earthy, sometimes psychedelic blues. Toots, meanwhile, is utterly in his element, and his wonderful personality shines from both his music and his stage presence and he is a delight to watch as he fronts the mule.

The party is not over, however, not by a long chalk and disc three sees the band joined by the wonderful Gregg Allman, John Popper and a whole host of friends, just to make sure that the new year truly goesoff with a bang. Predominantly focusing on covers we get cuts from Bob Dylan (just like a woman’), Gregg Allman (‘dreams’), Tom Waits (‘Goin’ out west’), James Brown (It’s a man’s man’s man’s world’) and more alongside a couple of Mule originals (‘million miles from yesterday’ and ‘endless parade’) and the overall feel is one of celebration as these artists, united by their shared love and passion for music, simply tear up the stage, jamming on music close to their hearts. As the show comes to a close, there’s a sense of elation at having enjoyed such a rich and varied set tempered by a slight sadness that it’s over. Remarkably, despite the fact that there is over three hours of music here, the only indication that time has passed is the need to get up and change CD.

‘Dub side of the mule’ is a remarkably generous package. With the full concert presented in all its glory, fans can, for the first time, experience what that lucky audience were treated to on Dec 31st, 2006 at New York’s prestigious Beacon Theatre, and it’s a hell of a ride. The DVD offers up only the contents of disc two (the reggae set) sadly, as the swirling beauty of songs like ‘unring the bell’ must surely have been as mesmerizing to watch as they are to listen to, but nonetheless it’s a fine DVD to watch and an excellent bonus and it is clear that there is a case of a record label doing everything right, treating both artist and audience with the respect they deserve rather than taking the easy route of simply releasing the ‘dub’ disc. With crystal clear production throughout, a wide-ranging and diverse selection of songs and guest appearances from renowned artists Gregg Allman, John Popper and Toots Hibbert, ‘dub side of the mule’ is the ultimate mule package and an utterly essential document of the transcendent live mule experience. If you’re a fan of the mule, a fan of the blues, a fan of reggae or just music in general, then this is a set you have to buy. Utterly life-affirming, ‘dub side of the mule’ is the best of the mule anniversary celebrations so far.

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