Following on from the excellent archival sets of last year which were put together in order to celebrate twenty years of music, ‘The Tel Star Sessions’ is, in many ways, the ultimate Gov’t Mule archival set in that it represents the very first recordings the band ever made together. Recorded when Gov’t Mule was still very much considered a side project, the sessions were shelved when label interest allowed the band to spend someone else’s money and have been left to gather dust ever since. Faithfully cleaned up and presented here as a CD and limited edition vinyl pressing, ‘The Tel Star Sessions’ not only present the opening chapter of a career that has gone on to flourish, but also pay fine tribute to the tragically departed Allen Woody, whose sublime bass work sits at the heart of these songs.
Opening with ‘blind man in the dark’, a dusty blues song with a Hendrix vibe and the throbbing bass of Allen Woody very much to the fore, it’s clear from the very first song laid down by the band that they had something special going on. Loose and improvisational, Gov’t Mule had an intrinsic grasp of the melodies that stick but also a jazzy sensibility that allowed them to take their music beyond the verse-chorus-verse structure of many of their peers to deliver something truly different. As the song expands into the unknown, so Warren’s ecstatic guitar work reaches a peak that is matched by Matt’s inventive percussion, the latter drawing from the same font that supercharged Ginger Baker’s work in Cream. A kind of stoner-blues, ‘Rocking Horse’ is the music Queens of the Stone Age might have written if Josh Homme had grown up obsessed by Muddy Waters and Warren deliver’s a nicotine-stained vocal performance that is perfectly matched by guitar work that seems to intuitively fill the spaces left by Woody’s nimble bass lines. Kicking off with a huge, growling riff, ‘Monkey Hill’ draws on the likes of ZZ Top (who are covered later on in the sessions) as the band build a monster groove. An album highlight, ‘Mr Big’ is Woody’s show, and his bass (which seems to be connected to drummer Matt Abts by some sort of psychic link) hulks over the track like Godzilla over downtown Tokyo. This, coupled with Warren’s sensitive guitar work and grizzly vocal, make for a blues rock gem that will have any blues fan pummelling the air with joy. Things take a smoother turn on ‘The Same thing’ which brings to mind the epic jams of the Crossroads festival between artists such as Eric Clapton, B.B. King and Buddy Guy, and it’s Warren who really cooks here as he coaxes ever-better solos out of his guitar as the track progresses.
The second half of the record kicks off with the dark, Cream-esque blues of ‘Mother earth’ which sounds like that band amped up on amphetamines and sent stumbling out into the darkness, eyes burning like lanterns and senses ablaze with the wonders of the cosmos. ZZ Top’s classic ‘Just Got Paid’ is given a thorough working over next with the band tearing into that legendary riff with a hunger that has defined the band ever since. As much as the original is a masterclass of hard-rocking blues, this blistering cover is enough to strip the paint form the walls and if you don’t tap something throughout the track, it’s possible you’re clinically dead! As the title may imply, ‘Left coast groovies’ is a sweet tune that mixes up gritty blues and smooth jazz in a manner that recalls the earliest days of Aerosmith (think ‘Wings’) with its taut groove and mind-blowing chorus. However, where Aerosmith would have wrapped the track up in a radio-friendly three and a half minutes, Gov’t Mule take the road less travelled, heading off into the psychedelic pastures of mid-period Pink Floyd with gleeful abandon. The album ends with two versions of ‘World of difference’. The album mix is an atmospheric piece that continues to mine the rich seam of psychedelic blues that ‘Left Coast Groovies’ took such pleasure in. It’s a fitting end to the album and lets the listener down gently with a more relaxed vibe than found elsewhere. As a bonus track, we get an alternate version / original mix of the track which feels remarkably different to the version that precedes it. Like a film you know suddenly being re-released in Black and White, this different version has all the components that you might expect, and yet it’s all changed, helping to demonstrate just how off-the-cuff these recordings really were.
Whilst the majority of the songs from ‘The Tel Star Sessions’ have found their way onto other studio recordings, this still remains an immensely special archival set that should have Gov’t Mule fans and newcomers alike excited. There’s a raw spontaneity to the music that is critically lacking from so much of modern music and you can feel the excitement of the band as they explore their immense skills on songs like ‘blind man in the dark’ and their visceral take on ‘Just got paid’. Brilliantly recorded, it’s almost like being there in the studio with the band and there’s an in-the-moment quality to the music that just can’t be faked. Do yourself a favour – whether you think you know these tracks or not, grab a copy of this music and immerse yourself in the sound of a band making musical history and so blissfully invested in the process that their entirely unaware of the fact. 9