40 acres, a mule and a sheepdog

I expected a much bearded audience,

a jam band atmosphere, dancing and swaying in the front rows, the smell of beer and a haze of THC in the air.

This past week I went to two gigs that I thought at least would be superficially similar. I went to see The Sheepdogs at the Borderline and Gov’t Mule at Under the Bridge. Some gigs you come out of enthused, energized and still humming the tunes, and some leave you indifferent. The band with Warren Haynes couldn’t manage it, but the band inspired by him did. So, what went wrong?

Gov’t Mule’s connection to the Allman Brothers is through Warren Haynes. At the same time, The Sheepdogs feel like they have studied the Allman Brothers (along with The Credence Clearwater Revival and the James Gang) to shape their sound, and you can feel the influence in their tunes. Both borrow liberally from the blues and I thought the two bands would attract similar audiences. Their lineup is identical and their sounds aren’t all that different. Both bands play what feels like a revival of classic 70s rock.

The Sheepdogs were well received at Bonnaroo and seem about to take off commercially. Though not so strong lyrically, they’ve got some very catchy hooks, a strong blues vibe and fun harmonized guitar sections to make up for it. Gov’t Mule, with Warren Haynes formerly of the reunited Allman Brothers band have a huge following and are a frequently seen act at the US festivals. There is a clear difference in scale between the bands. One is a huge international act, well established, and the other is a band from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan just starting to make waves, but both are cut from the same rock and roll cloth.

The Sheepdogs delivered, and then some. I found myself up front and center at the stage. The Sheepdogs had The Borderline packed and loving it. There was dancing, cheering and a really good atmosphere. They had everyone shouting along to I Don’t Know. They ribbed the audience about being given Red Stripe to drink and looked comfortable on stage. They jammed out a few times, but kept the set pretty tight

Warren Haynes made that guitar pour its emotional guts out. Gov’t Mule rolled out amazing songs like Slackjawed Jezebel and Soulshine, they jammed, they had a light show, they brought on the guitarist from Whitesnake. They introduced a blues harp player for a jam, They did their Al Green cover I’m a Ram, Van Morrison’s Mule, Ray Charles’ I Believe To My Soul and they worked hard during the encore. They really played two super-smooth sets. The crowd barely swayed, and a few people mouthed along to Soulshine, but that was it.

I tried my best, but I could feel it as well. So, what went wrong with this gig? Possibly a combination of the venue and the crowd. There wasn’t anything wrong with Warren Haynes or his performers - they put in a solid day’s work. The audience was a weird combination of folks - people still in their clown suits from work - having at most removed their ties (putting a different shirt in their briefcases might be an idea). Lots of people who looked like they’d rather be commuting between their office and their gardening instead, ordering champagne at the bar rather than beer and bourbon. I’m sure they were all enjoying themselves, watching a band they like - but there was no connection with the performers, and they sucked the rock ‘n roll out of the air like an Electrolux.

There were a few people in Mule shirts, a small crowd by the sound booth taping who clearly followed the band, but they too seemed to sense the lack of atmosphere and were subdued and clumped together by the mixing desk. There were some in the audience trying hard to enjoy themselves, but they were outnumbered.

The venue was equally at fault, and may have had its influence on their audience’s lack of enthusiasm. Under the Bridge is a venue under Stamford Bridge, the Chelsea football grounds. It oozes new money and bad taste. They’ve tried really hard to buy some rock and roll. The walls are covered in black and white prints of famous artists that have never played there. To their credit, the sound system is fantastic, but it doesn’t change the fact that the place is sterile.

The Borderline is pretty average as a venue - it’s got an awkward shape, the sound system feels like it is on the verge of breaking down and their fanciest beer is Newcastle Brown, but it’s still clearly a venue one can feel should have rock music playing in it. There’s music worn in to that grubby space.

The crowd, the venue and the band - it all needs to come together - and just one misfiring can sap the energy out of a performance. This time, only the band worked. Their extensive experience and many long tours can probably be thanked for their still amazing two sets - that they didn’t give up at any time, and that they didn’t despair at the lack of feedback from the audience. One has to wonder about who picked the venue for Gov’t Mule, and why they couldn’t see that it would be such a poor choice.

So, maybe the Sheepdogs channel your dad’s rock and roll, but Gov’t Mule has your dad’s awkward banker friend in the audience. I would dearly love to know what Gov’t Mule would have been like if they had played the Borderline (or the Luminaire, if it was still open!), with Monday night’s crowd instead. I bet I would have had my mind blown. I did find my bearded audience and jam band atmosphere - but it was with the band from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan - the amazing Sheepdogs.

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