This has been a fine summer for electricity in Central Park. In late July, the Flaming Lips torched a blessedly cool evening at Summerstage with their day-glo prairie-Floyd galactica. The next night, on that stage, the Black Lips ground their gnarly R&B down to the two-man bone. And on August 11th, Gov’t Mule — singer-guitarist Warren Haynes’ regular gig when he isn’t out with the Allman Brothers or various members of the Dead — paid tribute to two long-gone souls, John Lennon and Jerry Garcia, with heavy grandeur.
Two thirds of the way through the set — and a short walk from the Dakota — Haynes stepped into the simmering rage of “Working Class Hero” from John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, with harsh heated breaks by guest guitarist Jimmy Vivino. Haynes didn’t even solo; his deep blues were all in his growl. Earlier, Haynes marked the 15th anniversary of Garcia’s passing, two days earlier, by singing his memorial hymn, “Patchwork Quilt.” Then, for a final encore, he came back to Garcia with the Grateful Dead’s version of the Bonnie Dobson folk ballad “Morning Dew.” Vivino played guitar again, alternating cries and jabs with Haynes; the latter traded vocals with Jackie Greene from Phil Lesh and Friends. It was warm poignance in perfect proximity — in the late Sixties, the Dead played free shows in the bandshell at the bottom of the hill where Summerstage now stands.
Gov’t Mule’s Central Park date was notable for another reason: no set break. To make the most of the time allotted before a 10 PM curfew, the band — Haynes, drummer Matt Abts, keyboard player Danny Louis and bassist Jorgen Carlsson — did one long show, over two hours plus a half-hour encore. It was a rare chance to chart the ebb, climb and flow of the live Mule over an uninterrupted haul, from the rhythmically off-center aggression of “Blind Man in the Dark” (with a floating bridge that sounded like Jack Bruce’s key gifts to Cream) and the grunting-bass strut of “Broke Down on the Brazos” into a dark halfway stretch of bruised country soul, including a version of Elton John’s “Madman Across the Water,” taken at a tiptoe volume shattered by the howling outburst of the chorus. The result was heavy like Mountain, bluesy like Nick Cave.
Haynes gave himself plenty of room to roam and bark on guitar: his quacking wah-wah flourishes in “Inside Outside Woman Blues”; a rubbery-whine slide break in “Mule” that sounded like he was channeling his Allman brother Derek Trucks, until the tempo and distortion blew up into Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love.” But Haynes’ prowess is an established pleasure: Tonight, the surprises came in the Mule’s formation flying — like their Southern-rock bent on a New Orleans second-line march in the Band’s “The Shape I’m In” — and the way they summoned great spirits on the ground they once walked.