The last year has seen bountiful times for Gov’t Mule fans. As a somewhat mercurial act, live material from The Mule presents a far more varied experience than you might expect from other bands, and the recent crop of anniversary releases have done a good job of highlighting the wonderfully diverse nature of the Mule. Starting at the tail-end of last year we’ve had ‘Dark side of the mule’ (featuring a full set of Pink Floyd covers), ‘Sco-Mule’ (a jazz-rock odyssey featuring a heady collaboration with John Scofield), ‘Dub side of the Mule’ (featuring a brain-melting reggae set) and now, drawing a line under this set of special releases, comes the limited, vinyl-only ‘stoned side of the mule vol. 1 & 2’, a release that eschews the original material of the other sets and focuses exclusively on a selection of Rolling Stones covers. A frequently requested set, ‘stoned side of the Mule’ is a selection of highlights from the Halloween 2009 performance at the Tower Theatre (Philadelphia) which sees Gov’t Mule tackling a selection of oh-so-familiar songs with their typical mixture of reverence and wide-eyed fancy and whilst there’s no suggestion that this set outdoes the gloriously ramshackle nature of the Stones’ originals, there are moments when The Mule’s take is sufficiently out there to add a new spin on these well-worn songs.
Side A opens with a subtle version of ‘under my thumb’. The use of the xylophone (I think) gives the song a different feel to the Stones original, and whilst it takes a moment to adjust to Warren’s duskier tones, the bluesy guitar work (close to the original but loose enough to avoid the pitfall of it sounding like a carbon copy) and relaxed tempo gives the Mule version a certain charm. With its lilting piano intro, ‘monkey man’ is similarly delivered in relaxed style and it’s good to hear the Mule covering a stones song that is a touch rarer than some of the classics unearthed elsewhere. It’s a song that perfectly fits the Mule’s style and the band do it full justice. Next up is a ragged version of ‘Doo doo doo doo doo (heartbreaker)’, a song awash in wah-guitar and given life by a wonderfully gritty vocal from Warren. Benefitting hugely from a salacious horn section and extended solo break, ‘heartbreaker’ is another example of the Mule wrestling with a stunning original and delivering an impressive version of it. The side concludes with a devilish ‘Paint it black’ which simply can’t capture the dark glint of the original (how could it?) and which suffers from a muffled vocal that dominates the recording. With the quality lapsing significantly it is a slightly disappointing close to an otherwise near-flawless side although completists will nonetheless be grateful of its inclusion.
Side B starts off with the impossibly popular ‘Angie’ which is so faithfully covered that the arrival of Warren’s, and not Mick’s, voice comes as quite a shock. It’s a fine version, but far better is the less-well-known ‘ventilator blues’ (a dirty highlight of ‘exile on Main St.’) with its sleazy vocals, salacious sax and slide riffing. It’s a song that seems tailor-made for the Mule and they entirely make it their own. In contrast ‘shattered’ is a song so tied up with Mick’s unhinged delivery that even the Mule struggle to wrestle it from him although Warren does as good a job as anyone ever could in replicating that breathless, stream-of-consciousness delivery that marks the original out as one of the Stones’ most original compositions.
Side C tackles (and, amazingly succeeds in doing so) another classic ballad, this time in the form of ‘wild horses’ (a song the Stones themselves arguably did not perfect until the beautiful ‘stripped’ album). Heartfelt and elegantly delivered, it’s hard to imagine many people doing justice to such a perfect song. In stark contrast, ‘bitch’ remains one of the Stones’ rockiest riffs and Warren and the band deliver the track is if someone’s planted dynamite under the stage and they cannot wait to get off it. With a horn section valiantly trying to keep up with the furious rhythm, ‘bitch’ is a highlight and another track that benefits from being less well known than some of the other selections here. The side spins to a close with an extended version ‘slave’, a bluesy number from the immensely underrated ‘tattoo you’, that is delivered with gusto by the band and given life by Steve Elson’s exuberant saxophone work. This is one of the songs where the Mule do a fantastic job of placing their own stamp on the work of such an iconic band.
Side D opens with a stunning, stripped back version of early Stones single ‘play with fire’ and then we get another pair of cuts from ‘sticky fingers’ (the most well-represented Stones album on here). First up is a stunning version of ‘Can’t you hear me knocking’ which emerges from the hypnotic haze conjured by ‘play with fire’ and sends the listener reeling. It’s a vibrant, electric version that the Mule unleash, extending the song into a sweetly-scented workout that rivals ‘slave’ and it leaves just the impossibly well-known ‘brown sugar’ to round the set out. In fact, Gov’t Mule do a good job, evn with this enduring classic, by simply hitting it like an obstacle course and pouring their hearts and souls into completing it. Fast, frenetic and with plenty of grit, it’s a fitting end to the album.
The joy of these recent gov’t mule issues is that they play tribute to the immense skill and the immense love of music that the Mule possess. We’ve seen the band play tribute to Pink Floyd, to reggae and to jazz, and now to the Stones and, in each case, the pleasure is in seeing how the mule bring their own inimitable style to the table. Arguably the best tracks here are the ones that are less well known – songs like ‘bitch’, ‘slave’ and ‘monkey man’ – but the Mule do a grand job of covering even Stones standards, and their version of ‘wild horses’ is particularly impressive. Ultimately ‘stoned side of the mule’ stands as a testament to the enduring power of the Stones originals and the mule’s ability to transcend the familiar and deliver a set of classics that still, somehow, sound like their own. Judging by the audience cheers, it was another immensely enjoyable Mule gig, and it’s a pleasure to have these songs immortalized on vinyl, but be quick – it’s a limited pressing.