Gov’t Mule, Avett Brothers, Magpie Salute show their Dark Side in Michigan

Gov’t Mule, The Avett Brothers, and Magpie Salute
August 25, 2018
Clarkston, MI @ DTE Engery Music Theatre
Words/photos by Josh Mintz

Live music fans chase the “moment” – a song, or a guitar lick, or a drum solo that lives on in your memory forever. A lot of times, you don’t see it coming, and that’s what makes it special.

Sometimes, though – it’s the one you DO see coming that blows you away. For me, I had that moment this past Saturday night. Sure, I had to travel to the Detroit suburbs from Memphis just to catch it, but that’s part of the story.

My true thirst for live music spawned from the Allman Brothers – they were the first band I really traveled for, making the pilgrimage to New York City for the band’s legendary Beacon Theater runs as often as possible. It was a band that spanned generations for me personally, as my father was seeing them live in the 70s. My favorite Allman memory was the year my brother, my father and I spent a weekend at the Beacon together. Familial bonding over music can’t be understated.

A by-product of my love for the Brothers was my affinity for all things Allman – I latched on to and subsequently fell in love with pretty much any project attached to then-current ABB guitarists Derek Trucks and Warren Haynes. Haynes’s Gov’t Mule quickly became a favorite for me. While a lot of the world spent New Year’s Eve 1999 worried about whether society would come crashing down because of the Y2K bug, I spent it at Atlanta’s Roxy Theatre with Warren, Matt Abts, and Allen Woody.

As I got older, had kids, and fought maturity, I found my way to a new set of brothers – the Avett Brothers. Relative opposites of the Allmans, these siblings built their catalogue on songwriting rather than blistering guitar solos, which hit home for me in an unexpected way since I had spent years immersed in the jamband genre.

Topping it off, though, was the fact that it was something my wife, and later my kids, shared with me. We’ve spent countless hours as a family in the car and on planes, chasing the Avett Brothers across the United States (and across the border into Mexico) – seeking out that “moment” as a family.

When Gov’t Mule announced the Dark Side of the Mule dates – where the Mule would tackle Pink Floyd’s songbook – with the Avett Brothers and Magpie Salute, there was no chance I’d miss catching a show. It’s not often you get a chance to see more than one of your favorite bands in one night. So, we scooped up some concert tickets for the Clarkston, MI date at DTE Energy Music Theatre, booked the hotel room, and bought plane fare.

And then, I watched the calendar seemingly take forever to reach late August.

As the date approached, I turned to obsessively refreshing my Weather Channel app, and things looked grim. Sure, the venue had a roof but thunderstorms were on the horizon, and nothing shuts down an outdoor concert quicker than lightning. The day before we were scheduled to leave, the forecast looked especially bad, so we packed up rain gear and boarded a plane.

As fate would have it, we wouldn’t need it. Call it divine, or call it karma, or just call it dumb luck, but as showtime arrived, what hours earlier was certain precipitation was, well, non-existent.

Magpie Salute took the stage first. The band, spawned from the toxic relationship of another set of siblings, the Black Crowes’ Chris and Rich Robinson, was not at all what I expected. I hadn’t listened to them much in advance, and had a vague recollection of them being an unofficial, official Black Crowes tribute act. I couldn’t have been much more off the mark.

Led by original Crowes guitarists Robinson and Marc Ford and bassist Sven Pipien, they were rock and roll with the volume dialed up to 11 – quite literally. I’m not sure I’ve heard many bands with the volume cranked up to levels that Magpie Salute seemed to be playing. They made every minute of their brief opening set count as they barreled through a slew of guitar-driven songs. The Avett Brothers came out to join the band on William Bell’s “You Don’t Miss Your Water,” but the better sit-in was when Warren Haynes and Danny Louis came out to join Magpie on War’s “War Drums.” The tune was driven by the unsung hero of the band, Pipien, who laid down a thunderous bass line that really propelled the song. All in all, it was a great set of tunes that set the table for the rest of the evening.

I’ve seen the Avett Brothers in every sort of venue – from club to theatre to amphitheater. I’ve seen them headline, and on a festival bill, and put on their own festival. This show, though, presents an interesting format because while they were billed as co-headliners, they really weren’t serving in that capacity. This was Mule’s show, the Avetts never closed the night, they were always given less stage time. But, that didn’t deter them from doing what they consistently do, which is leave every bit of energy and soul on stage.

The Avett Brothers delivered a great set given the time they had. From the opening “Black Mountain Rag,” they seemed determined to covert any non-believer. With a shorter stage time, bands can fall into the trap of playing a greatest hits set, and the Avetts nimbly straddled the line. They included songs that novices would recognize like “Head Full of Doubt,” “Kick Drum Heart” and “No Hard Feelings” but threw some bones to the indoctrinated with “Gimmeakiss” and “Pretty Girl from Michigan,” the latter throwing a bone to geography.

There’s something that’s just smile-inducing about the Avett Brothers. Perhaps it’s the fact that they love what they do, and it’s clear from watching them on stage. Seth and Scott Avett have a clear bond that seeps into their music and their performance. Playful ribbing is common between the brothers, which makes the shows part comedy show at times. “Laundry Room” was as upbeat as ever despite the absence of Tania Elizabeth on fiddle (for maternity leave), and “Talk On Indolence” is always a rowdy number, and this time was no different.

For good measure and to my delight, the band finally coaxed Warren Haynes off the side stage to sit in on a cover of David Childers’s “Lucky Stranger.” It was what I was personally looking for – two roads diverging in the woods…my music present and past colliding on stage in all the right ways. While the Avetts are great musicians and songwriters, Warren’s on a completely different level and added a lot to the song. Even Seth had remarked earlier in the evening how the show was basically a 2-hour guitar lesson.

The Avetts ended their set in the same fashion that they have for the last few months – with the emotive “No Hard Feelings,” and with that, they set the stage for an epic finale: Gov’t Mule playing Pink Floyd, with a pre-promised Floyd-calibre laser show to augment the experience.

Gov’t Mule took the stage for what would turn out to be an epic music experience. As they have done across all of these dates, they opened with the only two Mule originals they would play that night, “World Boss” and a blistering “Blind Man in the Dark.”

Mule’s Halloween shows are legendary for their musical costumes – they’ve done a 90s alt rock set, a reggae set, a Rolling Stones set…the list goes on and on. The Boston Halloween show from 2008 presented the Pink Floyd set, and Dark Side of the Mule was born

After “Blind Man” the entire band save Haynes left the stage and at that point, the show transitioned to the Dark Side of the Mule portion of the evening. Haynes opened solo with “Pigs on the Wing (Part 2)”, and then the band came out for “Shine On You Crazy Diamond.” Danny Louis nailed Floyd’s haunting synth part, setting the tone for the rest of the night.

The show was a sight to behold. From the music to the magnificent laser and light show, it truly did Pink Floyd justice. The music was spot on – Mule didn’t deviate as much from the original songs as one might expect. In fact, across the tour the setlist were nearly identical, which would be the one bummer of the night. Part of the concert experience is the unexpected, and I heard exactly what I was expecting to hear; the only completely unexpected moments were the two opening songs.

That said, it was an unparalleled experience visually. From the dancing lasers to the crazy spotlights to the disco ball that descended from the top of the stage, Mule pulled out all of the stops to put on a completely immersive performance.

“Breathe” was tremendous, and it segued into “On the Run” which then melted into “Time.” Mule had all the proper ticking clock sound effects, and Matt Abts’s drumming to open the song was spot on. Predictably, Seth and Scott Avett came out on vocals (as they had at the other five dates they played together). The pair belted out the vocals, and seemed in awe of Haynes’s guitar work, stopping to watch as he took his solo.

Mule had a trio of backup singers (Machan Taylor, Mini Carlsson & Sophia Ramos) who brought the house down on the vocal solo portion of “The Great Gig in the Sky,” and then Magpie Salute’s Marc Ford and John Hogg came out to sit in on “The Nile Song.” After that, the familiar sound of coins jingling and cash registers opening signaled “Money,” which made its way into “Fearless.” Rich Robinson joined the band for the latter, taking over lead vocal duties.

The band closed with “Comfortably Numb” and “Echoes,” and finished their show with “Wish You Were Here.” Across the board, it was an absolutely amazing show to behold. Some variation in the setlist would be welcomed, for sure…maybe a full set of Mule originals followed by one set of Floyd songs, switching them up each night.

But, for a music fan, getting to watch my two favorite acts share a stage was a memorable experience regardless of any predictable setlist issues. I knew what Mule was going to play, just like it’s become obvious that the Avetts end every show with “No Hard Feelings.” That doesn’t make the music any less impactful, and that’s what the live music experience is for in the first place – to impact your soul.

My soul left happy.

Magpie Salute:
High Water, Take It All, Mary the Gypsy, For the Wind, You Don’t Miss Your Water*, War Drums**, Send Me an Omen
* with Seth and Scott Avett, Bob Crawford, and Joe Kwon
** with Warren Haynes and Danny Louis

The Avett Brothers
Black Mountain Rag, Shame, At the Beach, Gimmeakiss, Paranoia in Bb Major, Laundry Room, Talk on Indolence, Lucky Stranger*, Operator, Murder in the City, Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise, Ain’t No Man, Vanity, Kick Drum Heart, Pretty Girl from Michigan, No Hard Feelings
* with Warren Haynes

Gov’t Mule
Pigs On The Wing (Part 2), Shine On You Crazy Diamond (Parts I-V), Have A Cigar, Welcome To The Machine, Speak To Me > Breathe > On The Run > Time* > Breathe Reprise*, The Great Gig In The Sky, The Nile Song**, Money > Fearless*** > Comfortably Numb > Echoes (Part 2)
Encore: Wish You Were Here
* with Scott Avett & Seth Avett
** with Marc Ford & John Hogg 
*** with Rich Robinson

Magpie Salute

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The Avett Brothers

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Gov’t Mule