“By the way, which one’s The Mule?”
Recorded Halloween 2008, Dark Side of the Mule finds one of America’s greatest rock bands covering the material of one of the great English rock bands. On first hearing of this album, I at first wondered just who this archive release was aimed at, beyond fans that had been there on the night of recording. Whose to say that Gov’t Mule fans would be that interested in hearing a live album of them playing the songs of Pink Floyd, and who is to say that Pink Floyd fans would be any more enthusiastic. It’s a difficult balancing act, being a well established band doing a whole live set of songs made up of material by another well established band, but on hearing Dark Side of the Mule, it is one that Gov’t Mule pull off with considerable finesse.
It opens with a gloriously evocative version of “One of These Days”, one of the most beloved of Pink Floyd’s instrumentals, which allows Mule frontman and guitar player, Warren Haynes, to let rip and serve notice that throughout this album he’ll be playing tribute to David Gilmour, rather than undergoing an exercise in bland facsimilie. Long known as a champion of Gibson guitars, my recent interview with Haynes revealed that for this gig, he played Fender Telecasters and Stratocasters in order to achieve a similar tone to Gilmour’s guitar work. A rendition of the often under-appreciated “Fearless” reveals that Haynes is no slouch at Gilmour’s vocal mannerisms either and there are moments throughout dark Side of the Mule, where a long-standing Pink Floyd fan like myself has to listen closely to convince themselves that it isn’t actually Gilmour singing.
The single CD version of Dark Side of the Mule (there is a deluxe expanded version of the full gig, complete with the full set of MuleMusic played before the Pink Floyd Set, released in mid-January) leans heavily on material from Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here. Both halves of “Shine on You Crazy Diamond” are executed with no small amount of brilliance and “Have a Cigar” is an unarguable highlight of the album. I’m less taken with the material from Dark Side of the Moon, but that’s more to do with the fact I’m over-familiar with the original album, rather than any failing of The Mule. I’d even go so far as to say I prefer Gov’t Mule’s renditions of “Breathe (In the Air)”, “Time” and “Money” over the originals, as so much more life is injected into them, not only by the band, but the particularly lively audience who were at the gig that night.
Elsewhere, the two tracks from Meddle open the album, followed by a short and sweet “Pigs on the Wing”. There’s nothing from The Final Cut, which is to be expected and the only song taken from The Wall, is Gilmour’s calling card “Comfortably Numb”. The fact that Gov’t Mule are able to pull all these tunes off without it sounding false or laboured is a testament to how great a band they are, particularly on the live stage. Haynes pays tribute throughout, but never sounds overwhelmed by the material, drummer Matt Abts displays exactly why he has been The Mule’s rhythmic foundation for their whole career and multi-instrumentalist Danny Louis plays his own tribute to the sound of Rick Wright throughout.
So is this an album for Gov’t Mule fans, or Pink Floyd fans? Exercises like this oh so frequently fall between the two stools and are neither one thing or the other, failing to be a satisfying listen and doing nothing for the act playing the set, or the act whose material they are covering. However, in the case of Dark Side of the Mule, thanks to a well chosen set list selected by one of America’s great rock bands, coupled with their own undeniable brilliance as a live act, this is the best of both worlds. Simply put, Dark Side of the Mule is an album which should find fans of Gov’t Mule and Pink Floyd gain a deeper appreciation of the brilliance of the other band.
For a band with no shortage of brilliant live albums, this must rank among their very best.