Since releasing their self-titled debut album in 1995, Gov't Mule have remained close to their trademark bluesy hard rock roots. While they cover classic blues tunes regularly, they apply that musical signature. Heavy Load Blues marks the first time the quartet have recorded an album devoted strictly to blues. They cut it in one small room in a New England studio standing very close to one another -- without headphones -- using small vintage amplifiers. The band played stripped-down blues live from the studio floor; the few overdubs were added later. The 13-song standard version of the set offers six excellent Warren Haynes originals alongside covers by masters such as Ann Peebles, Howlin' Wolf, Elmore James, Bobby "Blue" Bland, and others. Haynes co-produced the set with John Paterno.
Gov't Mule's approach is exemplified in their reading of Junior Wells' "Snatch It Back and Hold It"; they inserted a spontaneous jam called "Hold It Back" into the middle without rehearsing it (Matt Abts' drumming is stellar). Leroy Carr's "Blues Before Sunrise" walks a line between the composer's strolling piano version (Danny Louis shines), John Lee Hooker's boogie read, and Muddy Waters' house-rocking Chicago blues take. Bland's "Ain't No Love in the Heart of the City" is slow, steamy, and downhearted, with glorious bass work from Jorgen Carlson and a swelling B-3. Haynes' singing -- buoyed by his biting guitar through the turnarounds -- has never sounded better. Tom Waits' "Make It Rain" is sinister, broken, and lost. The distorted guitar and basslines edge into a filthy Wurlitzer, then swirl around the lyric with venomous intent. Gov't Mule have performed Ann Peebles' "I Feel Like Breaking Up Somebody's Home" live before, but not like this. It delivers funky organ and bass work as Haynes adds delightfully rhythmic phrasing in his leads. The guitarist's "If Heartaches Were Nickels" has been recorded by Joe Bonamassa, Charles Wilson, and Dudley Taft, but this smoldering version is unparalleled due to Haynes' masterful playing and deeply emotional vocal delivery. Howlin' Wolf's "I Asked for Water (She Gave Me Gasoline)" is raucous, angry, and deep, deep blue; throughout it, Gov't Mule channel Jimi Hendrix's Band of Gypsies with great success. The title track is a slow, unaccompanied resonant acoustic blues done in vintage Delta style, while "Black Horizon" recalls Mississippi Fred McDowell's slide approach to gospel blues, complete with a testifying backing chorus. Heavy Load Blues is raw, heavy, and immediate, the sound of a band unfettered while pursuing a deep blue groove that never quits.