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Black Magic

A transformed Gov't Mule brings "Voodoo" to town.

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"I know what I'll do," says keyboardist Danny Louis. "I'll put on a Rumsfeld mask and scare the hell out of everybody."

Louis' own face may not be familiar to fans just yet, because he only officially joined the band last year. Gov't Mule was widely renowned as a power trio — guitarist/vocalist Haynes, drummer Matt Abts and another Allman Brothers alum, bassist Allen Woody, frequently had guest artists but kept their lineup tight.

Then Woody died suddenly in 2000. After that, a litany of luminaries, from Red Hot Chili Pepper Flea to jazz guitarist John Scofield, sat in for Woody's thumping bass on two tribute albums ("The Deep End" volumes 1 and 2) and a live DVD ("The Deepest End").

The project showcased Gov't Mule's musical versatility and broadened its audience. Nevertheless, some fans were wary when, in addition to naming former Black Crowes bassist Andy Hess as a new member, the band officially added Louis as keyboardist. Collaborations were one thing, but Gov't Mule was a trio.

But Louis insists the keys were nothing new and points to the band's 2000 album, "Life Before Insanity." "There was a ton of keyboards on that record," he says. "The evolution people are talking about was beginning to take place." Still, he insists, the core of the band remains constant. "There's so much about Gov't Mule, in the way it approaches music, in the way Warren writes and sings that's pretty much a continuous thing."

Louis played keyboards on both "Deep End" records, even co-writing the ballad "Beautifully Broken" and the rocker "Tryin' not to Fall" (a vehicle for guest bassist Jason Newsted of Metallica). However, after agreeing to join Mule on tour, he still faced the challenge of adding keys to the band's older trio tunes. "I just put the record up on my stereo and played along with it," he recalls. "The operative word was ratty" — meaning lots of punchy Hammond B-3 organ.

The onstage chemistry worked, and that's what convinced the band to permanently adopt the new formula. "Warren called and said, 'Would you like to come out?' We had a ball, and it evolved into me doing it full time, strictly because of fun."

For Haynes, part of the fun is surmounting the role of "hired gun." In the quartet context, Haynes's Clapton-inspired fretwork and thundering vocals are front-and-center yet never forced. "I feel that Gov't Mule is just coming into its own," Haynes says of the current lineup. "The record we just finished is my favorite that we've done."

That album, the recently released "Deja Voodoo," was laid down in two sessions squeezed between live dates. It captures the immediacy and spontaneity of Mule's performance, in part because the band had never performed the songs before.

"A lot of what you hear on the record are first impressions," explains Louis, who co-wrote the funky opener "Bad Man Walking" and the sprawling jam "Silent Scream." "The overdubs were sort of first impressions on top of first impressions. … I think that brought out a lot of freedom." The result, he says, "deconstructed my notions of musical propriety and helped me allow spontaneity and the magic that comes from that. Sometimes it's the four of us going off and tightrope walking."

When Gov't Mule plays the Landmark on Halloween night, it will be Richmond's first opportunity to hear the new songs live. And given the band's reputation for onstage hijinks, there's no guessing what else could happen. S



Gov't Mule plays the Landmark Theater at 7:30 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 31. Tickets cost $25. Tickets may be purchased from the Landmark box office, at local Ticketmaster outlets, online at www.cc.com, or by phone at 262-8100.

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