Warren Haynes Discusses His Grateful Dead Tribute Show and Gov't Mule's Star-Studded New Album, 'Shout!'
Given your love of improvisation, performing with an orchestra must have been a special challenge.
Yes. I’m not used to doing anything quite so structured, but with a symphony that’s just the way it is. We were able to utilize the spirit of improvisation in three different ways. There are sections where the symphony will bow out and the electric band will improvise and the symphony comes back in on cue. Sometimes what the symphony is playing is orchestrated but what I’m playing on top of it is complete improvisation.
And the weirdest aspect, which I really love, is sometimes what the symphony is reading was originally improvised by the Grateful Dead, then orchestrated. For instance, the interlude of “Dark Star” that opens the show was arranged by Steven Bernstein based on a 1968 performance of “Dark Star” that I sent him. He took a four- or five-minute excerpt of it and arranged it for the orchestra, so everything they are playing was played by someone in the Grateful Dead as improvisation.
Was it hard to find the right guitar approach for this?
The biggest challenge is to be able to hear the symphony well enough to respond accordingly, because all of my soloing is based on what they’re doing. It’s made easier by the fact that I’m playing the Wolf, which instantly gives the sound that connects with this music. The owner of the guitar loaned it to me for the tour, and I got the first day of rehearsal in Pittsburgh.
I was hoping I’d be able to play it for a few songs, but as soon as I plugged it in, I knew I wanted to play it all night. I just run it through my 1965 blackface Super Reverb. I borrowed a Mu-Tron [envelope filter] that I run through the effect loop in the guitar and control it the same way Jerry controlled his. Those are really the only two sounds I’m using: guitar straight in and guitar through the Mu-Tron. It just lends itself to that music. It’s very inspiring, and it makes me want to play more in that vein than I ever would otherwise.
Let’s talk about Shout! which is an unusual new direction for you. Where did you get the idea of having different vocalists record your songs and include it as a bonus disc?
The first three people I thought of were Elvis Costello for “Funny Little Tragedy,” Dr. John for “How Could You Stoop So Low” and Toots Hibbert for “Scared to Live.” I just heard those voices when I wrote those songs and thought of having them sing a cameo appearance. But that seemed underwhelming and like a lot of trouble to go through to have someone sing a small part of the song. So I started to think bigger.
Didn’t the actual process begin with a correspondence with Elvis?
Yeah. I wrote him an email asking for advice about recording the vocals for “Funny Little Tragedy,” which I wrote as a tribute to early Eighties British new wave. I had never sung a song that went this far in that direction and I wanted it to have that authentic garage-y sound, and he responded with a really nice, long email with what he used on all of his early albums, being very specific. Then he said, “You should just use something cheap, like a Shure SM58,” which I did, and it turned out great. But that planted a seed in my head: “It sure would be cool to hear him sing that song.” That seed blossomed into the entire bonus disc.
Very few people would associate you with Elvis Costello. Has he always been a significant influence?
He became a bigger influence over the years. I think he’s consistently written amazing songs, which is very impressive and really quite rare. From a compositional standpoint, there’s so much that can be learned listening to his work from the beginning to now, and I think it’s so important to break new ground and not just keep going back to the same well. That applies to guitar playing, to singing and, probably most of all, to songwriting.