Gov't Mule Rides a Blue Note

The new Gov't Mule album, "Shout!," would be noteworthy just because it's the first new studio recording by the well-loved blues-rock band in four years. But the album is also garnering attention as the group's first release on Blue Note Records, and for the wealth of guest vocalists who take part in alternate versions of all 11 songs on a bonus disc.

"Shout!" is an important release for both Blue Note and its president, Don Was, who calls Gov't Mule frontman Warren Haynes "as great a rock'n'roll guitar player as I know of. I never had any questions about wanting to do this record."

Gov't Mule -- Haynes, drummer Matt Abts, keyboardist Danny Louis and bassist Jorgen Carlsson -- started writing for "Shout!" in February 2012 with a sense of renewed vigor after a one-year hiatus. For Haynes, the guests on the bonus disc are a "wish list" of his favorite singers: Dave Matthews, Jim James, Grace Potter, Elvis Costello, Steve Winwood, Vintage Trouble's Ty Taylor, Dr. John, Toots Hibbert, Ben Harper, Myles Kennedy and Glenn Hughes.

"The first thing I did with every singer was say, 'Hey, this is the concept of the album: I have a song I think you would be perfect for, but as a singer, I would never sing a song I didn't feel a deep connection to. So I'd like to send you the song, and if you feel connected to it, I'd love for you to sing it. If not, I totally understand,'" Haynes says. "That's the way all the conversations started." A testament to the respect he has in the artist community, nearly every vocalist Haynes asked agreed.

"The first thing that blew me away [with "Shout!"] was the songwriting, which was really deep and a more nuanced than other Mule records," Was says. "Then when [Haynes] played me the second disc, I was blown away by how brilliant the casting is. It's the perfect song for everybody, and they got some stellar performances out of folks. The idea of doing it as two separate CDs in one package was irresistible."

Asked about the challenges of releasing Shout! as a double CD, Was laughs. "It costs more, so the big challenge was getting it past business affairs," he says. "You have to be able to go to the finance guys with the argument of 'This is really fucking cool,' armed with nothing more than enthusiasm. Enthusiasm usually trumps. I don't see it as a severe marketing challenge -- I see it as a marketing coup."

A respected bassist and Grammy Award-winning producer, Was says he keeps his musician hat on even as label chief. "The philosophy is to make great records and let as many people know about them as possible," he says. "That, in a nutshell, is what Blue Note tries to do, and that's how I work as a producer as well. Everything that on paper seemed certain to sell never sold. And everything that moved me and other people were the things that worked, despite great odds."

In 1989, Was produced two unexpected commercial breakthroughs: Bonnie Raitt's "Nick of Time" -- which hit No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and won three Grammys, including album of the year -- and the B-52s' "Cosmic Thing," which hit No. 2. "I learned that very quickly with Bonnie and the B-52s, two artists that had tremendous respect but no one had any illusions that the records were going to sell. We just tried to make the best records we could knowing that they weren't going to sell, and just do something we could be proud of, and they sold."

Was calls "Shout!" a "great American rock'n'roll album of the highest order," and sees no reason why it wouldn't fit in with the catalog of Blue Note, traditionally viewed as a jazz label. "My musical vision was shaped by the mission statement that Alfred Lyon, who started Blue Note Records 75 years ago, wrote," he says. "It's really about the quest to record authentic music and to promote the inspiration behind it. I don't think Alfred had in mind discriminating in terms of scales or modes that people play. I think Warren Haynes and Wayne Shorter have a great deal in common: They have command over the instrument, they have imagination, and they're soulful. That's what Blue Note's about to me. We've got to be the greatest jazz label in the world-and I think we are-but in addition there's room for soulful music that grooves."

Like Was, Blue Note marketing VP Zach Hochkeppel says "Shout!" is a good example of what Blue Note is today. "Blue Note is a 'good music' label, the lineage of which is, and has to be, jazz," he says. "But we've been able to expand. Warren has a healthy respect for jazz and the label, and Don has an inclusive vision of what can be on Blue Note, so you can have Gregory Porter, which is a jazz vocal record, next to Elvis Costello and the Roots, which has nothing to do with jazz but fits very well next to an Amos Lee record, a Terence Blanchard record, or a Gov't Mule record."

Gov't Mule has sold nearly 4 million live track downloads through its site MuleTracks.com, and released its previous album "By a Thread" on its Evil Teen label, following stints on Relativity and ATO. "Shout!," like Haynes' solo album "Man in Motion" last year on Concord, was financed independently, a strategy that provides options, according to Haynes' wife and manager, Stefani Scamardo. "I do feel like we did a good job with 'By a Thread' and got the record out there. But it's great to have a team of people around you-it feeds into the process, especially when everybody's so excited," she says. "Anybody can hire the right indies, radio, press and digital marketing, but there's something about having a team of people brainstorming and trying to make your project bigger than just yourselves. We've been happy at all levels doing it in different ways, and when these scenarios come up and we like the people and are inspired, it makes sense to us. If it didn't, then it would probably be coming out on our own label."

The Gov't Mule deal with Blue Note is for one album, but Scamardo is optimistic that the partnership for the band can continue, and that Haynes' solo work with Concord can continue as well. "We've basically ended up with two great Universal companies we're real happy with," she says, adding that the relationship with RED as distributor has been particularly fruitful, providing continuity during label shifts and moving anywhere from 50,000 to 200,000 units of live CDs and DVDs.

"[It's] allowed us to pursue a lot of these opportunities," Scamardo says. "Some of these [releases] don't ship huge numbers on the front end, but we need a partner that consistently makes sure the project gets out there. It's a good independent business model we've worked out with them."

Likewise MuleTracks.com, which takes the power of the Gov't Mule live experience and turns it into something fans can hear outside the venue. "We've always had the fan base that wanted to tape shows, and the second we had the technology to get good mixes to them immediately, we pounced on it -- and so did our fans," Scamardo says.

Despite the second disc of "Shout!," Blue Note is promoting it as a Gov't Mule record, with the guests as a bonus. The Gov't Mule version of "Funny Little Tragedy" just went to triple A radio. "We don't want to lead with the guest artists, because the truth of the matter is [Gov't Mule] doesn't need these artists to garner the attention," Hochkeppel says. "[Shout!] is only going to cost [fans] a little bit more than it would be for a standard CD. It's basically a bonus for everybody that buys the record. We want to respect the fact that all these artists gave their free time willingly, so we didn't want to look like we were exploiting the guest artists either."

Still, the variety of artists on the second disc provides a wide range of marketing and promotional opportunities, from heritage rock, NPR and college stations to word-of-mouth via each artist's website and social networks. Retail promotions and bundles with Best Buy and Amazon will be supplemented by nontraditional outlets like Guitar Center, tapping into Haynes' respect in that world.

Then there are opportunities at jam-band and music-geek sites, as well the group's own Mule.net, which boasts a fervent base. "Gov't Mule has such a direct connection with fans. They're doing a really robust direct-to-consumer offer, exclusive bundles for T-shirts and early access to tickets, and they've already had huge response to that two months out," Hochkeppel says. "Given how connected that community is and where the Internet lives, that's where we're focusing as far as arming the kids with the tools to tell each other about the music. This seems to be a situation where everybody feels like it's Warren's time."

Was says releasing records like "Shout!" is why he came to Blue Note in the first place. "To be able to do things like this when they come along, I'm thrilled," he says. "I hope I get to do this for the rest of my life."