The Allman Brothers Band

Warren Haynes: Everyguitarist

By Anthony DeCurtis
6 June 2004
The New York Times
(c) 2004 New York Times Company

”I’M 44 years old, and I have a brand-new career ahead of me in the same way that a 25-year-old might,” said Warren Haynes as he sat in his living room, the expanse of downtown Manhattan framed in the window behind him. ”That’s very odd.” He paused. ”But it’s no more odd,” he continued, ”than the thought of being in the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers at the same time.”

Mr. Haynes laughed in disbelief. He is the lead guitarist in the Dead, as the current version of the Grateful Dead is known. (Mr. Haynes is also a member of Phil Lesh and Friends, the group led by the Dead’s bassist.) Since 1989 (with one four-year break) he has played guitar, written songs and helped produce albums for the Allman Brothers Band. And Mr. Haynes failed to mention that he was also a founder of Gov’t Mule, a muscular blues-rock band, in 1994.

All of those outfits remain exhaustingly active. Next Saturday Mr. Haynes will perform with both Gov’t Mule and the Dead at Bonnaroo, the annual festival in Manchester, Tenn., that has become the celebratory high point of the jam-band summer season. His tireless playing has made Mr. Haynes one of the movement’s most significant and inspiring figures. ”There’s a depth to Warren’s playing, especially in the world of blues,” said Trey Anastasio, the guitarist for Phish, which recently announced that it would break up after a summer tour. ”You can tell he’s listened to everybody. But I think this is his time to break free, to be himself — with the full sense that he’s done all the work necessary to get there.”

Such a break is, in part, what Mr. Haynes was referring to when he spoke of his ”brand-new career.” And the first stage of that freedom is ”Live at Bonnaroo,” an album of solo acoustic performances recorded at last year’s festival, which comes out on Tuesday. (To promote the release, Mr. Haynes will perform at the Bowery Ballroom on Monday and Tuesday and at Town Hall on Wednesday. The shows are sold out.)

Sitting in his apartment, Mr. Haynes looks the part he has been playing. Dressed in jeans and a black T-shirt, he’s shaggy and friendly, a 1970’s Southern rock album cover come to life. Surrounding him are shelves of CD’s, audio equipment and books about music. Two Andy Warhol portraits of Mick Jagger hang on the wall opposite him.

”Live at Bonnaroo” is Mr. Haynes’s second solo album; the first, ”Tales of Ordinary Madness,” appeared in 1993, when he was still relatively obscure. If to this point Mr. Haynes has been primarily known as a prodigious guitar-slinger (last year Rolling Stone ranked him among the 25 ”Greatest Guitarists of All Time”), ”Bonnaroo” showcases him as a singer and songwriter. The album’s 16 songs alternate his own haunting ballads (”Beautifully Broken,” ”Tastes Like Wine” and ”Patchwork Quilt,” a requiem for Jerry Garcia) with versions of songs by Radiohead (”Lucky”), U2 (”One”), Otis Redding (”I’ve Got Dreams to Remember”) and the Eagles (”Wasted Time”). His voice, a husky, blues-boy croon rippling with conviction, weaves together the varied material. As far as his guitar playing on the album, however, Mr. Haynes wryly described himself as a ”paid accompanist.”

”I’m not a great acoustic player,” he acknowledged. ”I enjoy it, and I’m getting better, but there’s nothing virtuoso about it. And I like that. It allows me to sing and interpret the songs differently. That’s part of what makes it special for me.”

On the day the album was recorded, Mr. Haynes took the stage at around noon, a time at which he would more typically be sleeping. (Characteristically, he had played late the previous night with the Allman Brothers.) The thousands of stalwart revelers staggering into the site surely were not in much better shape. Consequently, the set has an almost dreamlike feel, as if Mr. Haynes were simply playing some of his favorite songs as they came to mind.

That’s pretty much how it was. As Mr. Haynes, who had done about a dozen solo performances in his life to that point, was sketching out his set list that morning, his wife, Stefani Scamardo, who manages him and other performers, noted the brooding Radiohead song at the top. In a perfect spousal question that is really a comment, she asked, ”You’re not really going to open up with ‘Lucky,’ are you?” Mr. Haynes, a North Carolina native who speaks in a cheerful ”hey, buddy” drawl, chuckled at the recollection. ”Well, yeah,” he replied, ”I think I am.”

Though Mr. Haynes recorded the set, he was not planning at the time to release it as an album. When he listened to it, however, he found himself enjoying its informal immediacy. ”It’s not flawless, but it’s got something from start to finish,” Mr. Haynes said. ”In hindsight, I’m glad I didn’t give any thought to it being an album, because then I was able to have fun and play whatever popped into my head. I played an original, ‘Forevermore,’ that I’d never performed before, which I wouldn’t have done otherwise. And I probably wouldn’t have played all those covers.”

”Live at Bonnaroo” kicks off six months of incessant activity for Mr. Haynes. It’s scary just to hear him run down his plans. ”Bonnaroo begins the Dead tour,” he said. ”I’ll tour with them for a few weeks, and then go straight to the Allman Brothers. Then back to the Dead, and back to the Allman Brothers. That leads me up to about September, when the new Gov’t Mule record comes out, and we launch a full-blown tour. And there may be some more Dead and Allman Brothers stuff. And that takes me to the end of the year.” As if that weren’t enough, on the Dead shows, Mr. Haynes will perform solo as the opening act.

Growing up, Mr. Haynes got his musical education from two older brothers who were avid record collectors; one now owns a record store. As he speaks, so wide-eyed and openhearted, Mr. Haynes seems much like that striving younger sibling, thrilled to have the opportunity to run with the older guys but struggling to establish his own voice. Asked what he wants from all his hard work — and to be fair, Mr. Haynes barely seems to think of it as work at all — his thoughts turned immediately to his band.

”I feel that Gov’t Mule is just coming into its own,” he said. ”The record we just finished is my favorite that we’ve done. I mean, I’ve been doing this professionally since I was 16 years old, and I’ve been touring and recording since I was 20. But, except for the past 10 years or so, I’ve been a hired gun, working for someone else. I still have tons of songs of my own that have never been performed or recorded.

”But I feel better about where I am right now than I ever have,” he concluded, ”as far as what I’m writing, what I’m recording, the way I’m playing, the way I’m singing. I worked a long time to get to this place. So I’m making up for a lot of lost time.”

Anthony DeCurtis is the executive editor of Tracks and a writer for Rolling Stone.


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