I had a chance to see a couple of shows this week that had as many similarities as they had differences.
First, this past Sunday, the North Charleston Performing Arts Center got rocked properly by Gov't Mule. Led by the Asheville-born guitarist Warren Haynes, Gov't Mule has always been a tough band to classify. On the one hand, it's a rock band, but it also exhibits stains of blues, Southern rock (and yes, that's a music style well separated from regular rock n' roll), and the ever-popular jam band classification. There are probably about half a dozen other styles mixed in there as well, but suffice to say that when Gov't Mule comes to town, the audience mix is just as eclectic as the band's sound.
Sunday night I saw hippies both young and old, rednecks, college students, and middle-age guys like myself. All of us were there to see Haynes, drummer Matt Abts, bassist Jorgensen Carlsson, and keyboardist Dany Louis play their collective hearts out, and the band did not disappoint. Playing until well after 11 p.m, The Mule knocked the crowd of just under 1,000 to songs ranging from the opener "Hammer & Nail" to a dizzying array of covers, including Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love" and "Black Dog," Howlin' Wolf's "Smokestack Lightning," and Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues." Two sets and an encore later, fans left spent, further convinced that Gov't Mule is one of the best live acts out there.
It might also be one of the most underrated. Despite having been around for nearly 20 years, and despite featuring one of rock's most talented guitarists, who also moonlights as the lead guitarist for the Allman Brothers Band, it seems Gov't Mule is the Rodney Dangerfield of the jam rock scene. Sure, they get a lot of love from their fans, but I'm constantly running across folks who have never heard of the band. I quickly try to remedy that, of course, but when Haynes doesn't even show up on Rolling Stone magazine's 100 greatest guitarists list, I have to wonder what the judges were smoking.
A gentleman who happened to place at number six on that same list is blues legend BB King. That isn't surprising. The musician, who is still touring at the ripe old age of 87, basically invented his own sound, and the way he bends the strings of Lucille—his beloved electric guitar—has been copied by countless artists.
King and his band made a stop Tuesday night at the PAC, and I had mixed feelings about the performance. BB King did play some of his signature songs, most notably "The Thrill is Gone," and even while pushing 90, he showed he could still rock with the best of them. However, the amount of time King actually spent performing music on Tuesday night was very little compared to the time he spent doing other things. He told stories, flirted with women in the front row, even let his band play two full numbers on their own before he even appeared on the stage. Again, the guy is 87, so for the most part he gets a pass. Most folks his age are long retired and quietly enjoying their golden years, so if King wanted to lead the crowd in an extended singalong of "You Are My Sunshine," he's certainly earned the right to do so.
And even though his body is showing the obvious signs of his advanced age, when you look into King's eyes you can still see plenty of life left. I'm sure there were probably a few folks who left the PAC on Tuesday night feeling like they might not have received their money's worth, but they did get to see a living legend perform, even if the actual time spent performing was short.
Despite some obvious differences, I think Haynes and King are really kindred spirits. Both men are Southern born, both first picked up a guitar at the age of 12, and both play with a distinct style and a passion for the instrument that is undeniable. It is also safe to say that both men will likely leave this Earth with callouses still heavy on their fingertips from constant guitar playing.
Both King and Haynes are lifers. Although both have been fortunate enough to be able to make a good living as musicians, the truth is that they would still be playing guitar even if no one ever showed up.