When Gov’t Mule’s Heavy Load Blues was released in late 2021, few who heard the album could have sensed that it was merely one part of a two-album project from Warren Haynes and his band mates. The sessions at Power Station New England yielded not only the 13 tracks of Heavy Load Blues (and eight bonus tracks), but also, another brand-new album in its entirety. Gov’t Mule’s 12th studio album, Peace…Like a River (Fantasy), is set for release on June 16, 2023.
While Heavy Load Blues was designed as a live-in-the-studio project focusing specifically on Mule’s exploration of the blues idiom, the artistic departure still fit seamlessly into the group’s body of work. A hit with fans and critics alike, the acclaimed album was nominated for a GRAMMY in the Best Traditional Blues Album category. Though it didn’t win, Mule’s 11th studio album was a defining musical statement, created during the period of lockdowns and social distancing.
In the run-up to Heavy Load Blues, the members of Gov’t Mule – guitarist-vocalist Haynes plus Matt Abts on drums, bassist Jorgen Carlsson and keyboardist Danny Louis – were in the midst of a creative rush¾and Haynes, in particular, had found himself with a bumper crop of new material.
“Stefani – my wife and our manager – had come up with the idea of doing the blues album,” Haynes recalls. The band long had such an idea in mind, but the time never seemed quite right…until it did. Still, Haynes had some reservations. “I said, ‘I love the idea, but I have all these new songs for a rock record.’” So, he offered an alternate idea: “We can do both at the same time,” he suggested. “We have the time. Why not?”
The songs were certainly there. “We went into the studio with about 40-ish original songs,” says Haynes. He knew that a handful of those would be destined for Heavy Load Blues, but the widely varied collection of new songs featured plenty of top-notch material that ventured far outside the blues style. And so, the band decided to make not one, but two new albums during the pandemic.
It was important to Haynes, the rest of the band, and co-producer John Paterno that each of the two concurrent album projects have its own distinctive identity and character. Thanks to the novel approach Haynes had in mind, that wasn’t going to be a problem.
“We set up all the gear for the blues record in this small room with low ceilings,” Haynes says. A larger adjacent room was designated for the making of what would become Peace…Like a River. In that room, Haynes says, “we set up all of our normal Gov’t Mule toys.” And there was no gear shared between the two rooms: “everything was completely separate,” he emphasizes. “Amplifiers, instruments, microphones, miking techniques, the recording processes and sonic pictures were so different,” Haynes explains. “That really enabled us to separate [the two album projects] in our minds in a way that was crucial.”
The dual sessions proceeded with a character that deftly combined structure and spontaneity. “We would go in around noon and work on the new original material,” Haynes says. “We would record songs for Peace…Like a River until about 9:00 at night, and then we would take a break.” After dinner, the band would reassemble in the smaller room. “We’d play blues for the rest of the night,” Haynes says. “It was a way of cleansing our palate: ‘Now, we don’t have to think about all these complex arrangements and approaches. We can just shut our brains off and play blues.’” That was the guiding mindset for each day’s time in the studio. And, Haynes enthuses, “it turned out to be really productive and inspiring.”
The songs that would come out of the big-room sessions explored the many sides of Gov’t Mule. Concise songcraft coexists seamlessly with the band’s trademark instrumental journeys. Songs longer than pop convention are somehow still compact: they’re explorative but never meandering; the tunes are at once both wide-ranging and tightly focused.
Warren Haynes’ lyrical themes would serve as the glue that fused the sonic variety found within Peace…Like a River. “Most of these songs were written during lockdown,” Haynes says. “But I made a conscious decision: I didn’t want to write a bunch of Covid-centric songs.” What he wanted to do was explore the changes that he – and everyone else – was going through during that difficult time. “I wanted to focus on the positive aspects: what we’re learning, and especially what we learned to appreciate that we took for granted before.”
While each of the album’s 12 thematically linked tracks has its virtues, four stand out in special ways.
Opener “Same As It Ever Was” sets the lyrical tone. “Life throws challenges at you when you least expect it, and in some ways, the lockdown was no different than what could happen at any given moment,” Haynes acknowledges. “But this is the first time that the entire planet went through it together.” A soaring arrangement – anchored by Carlsson’s thunderous bass and Abts’ precise yet soulful drumming – helps bring the song’s heartfelt sentiments home.
When Hayes was writing “Made My Peace,” he drew on rock-solid inspiration. He sought to “double-track” his vocals the way John Lennon often did on Beatles and solo recordings. The Beatles influence went beyond even that. “The harmony slide guitar in the song’s middle is very informed by George Harrison,” he says.
The Kerhonkson Philharmonic provides a sweeping backdrop for the song. “The orchestration takes it even further in that [Beatles] direction,” Haynes says. “It’s a big, long piece full of twists and turns, but all that never gets in the way of the song.”
Haynes wrote lyrics for “Dreaming Out Loud” by weaving together inspirational quotes from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Robert and John Kennedy, and the late civil rights leader and U.S. Representative John Lewis. A stirring arrangement was necessary to go with the words. “The idea for ‘Dreaming Out Loud’ was to do kind of a Sly and the Family Stone sort of thing,” Haynes explains, “where different singers are taking different sections of the song.”
Gov’t Mule first encountered vocal powerhouse Ruthie Foster during the making of the band’s 2006 album, High & Mighty; she provided sterling backing vocals on the record. “And I’ve known Ivan Neville for years,” says Haynes. “I played on one of his solo records decades ago.” Both Neville and Foster sang on Haynes’ 2011 solo release, Man in Motion. And both return for the Peace…Like a River track “Dreaming Out Loud.”
“It all turned out really great,” Haynes says. “And then adding the horn section and percussion takes it to this whole other place.”
Haynes trades lead vocal lines with acclaimed singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Celisse on “Just Across the River.” “Our voices blend together really nicely,” he says. “And that gave the song the gospel feeling I had in mind when I first wrote it.” By the time Celisse recorded her memorable vocal parts for the track, its instrumental parts were already complete. “Next time we record together,” Haynes promises, “I’ve got to get her to play guitar.”
Elsewhere on Peace…Like a River, friends of the band help in important guest roles. Billy F. Gibbons’s trademark vocals underscores the tasty ZZ Top textures that inform the humor-infused “Shake Our Way Out.” Haynes laughs as he recalls deciding to reach out to his old friend. “I thought ‘I’ll give him a buzz and see if he would like to sing in the chorus to legitimize the influence that we’re borrowing!’”
Billy Bob Thornton adds his distinctive vocals to “The River Only Flows One Way.” A key part of the song’s instrumental core comes from Danny Louis’ keyboard work. “Danny was playing some really cool, creative, off-the-cuff stuff when we were still learning the song,” says Haynes. “And because we recorded everything, we were able to capture some of that fresh energy¾sometimes magic happens.”
While there are many threads running through the album, Haynes says that the nature of those connections didn’t make itself obvious until near the end of the recording sessions. “We started talking about titles while we were in the studio,” Haynes recalls. “One of the things that occurred to me was that the words ‘peace’ and ‘river’ appear so many times throughout the lyrics of the songs. I thought, ‘I’ve never noticed a pattern like that before, so there must be something to it.’ That’s what gave me the idea of coming up with a title that included both of those words: Peace…Like a River.”
Peace…Like a River brings together all of the qualities that have earned Gov’t Mule the beloved stature they enjoy today. And the burst of songwriting energy behind it is a key to its resonance with the listening audience. “I had this opportunity – and the inspiration – to write more than I’ve written since I was in my early 20s,” Haynes explains.
“I think that a lot of the world – and especially the music business – has given up on the idea of the integrity of longer songs and performances,” Haynes observes. But he holds those values in high regard; Haynes’ own songwriting and playing has long been informed by what he calls “the golden era of rock, soul, jazz and blues.” And Gov’t Mule combines the best and most enduring qualities from all those musical strains.
“Instead of shying away from those influences,” Haynes says, “our mission has always been to try to create music that can stand up next to them.” For him, few things would make him happier than to know that someone listened to Peace…Like a River and wondered “Am I listening to a record made in the ‘70s? Because I don’t know how I missed it back then!”