Warren Haynes is universally known for a variety of talents. His prowess on guitar is second to none. His ability to channel musical legends from Albert King to Frank Zappa is acknowledged. His gospel-tinged vocals swing from plaintive to joyous, often in the same song. He is front and center in every band that claims him, from Phil & Friends and the Allman Brothers to his own Gov’t Mule, the Warren Haynes Band and this new collaboration with Railroad Earth.
But none of those eclipses his brilliance as a songwriter, and that has never been more evident than on Ashes and Dust, the new album on Concord Records featuring Railroad Earth.
Before discussing the songwriting, however, consider the music itself. If this were just an instrumental album with Warren and RRE, it would be a masterpiece. If this were just a RRE album without Warren, it would be a masterpiece. The playing here is nothing short of spectacular, and there are so many layers that repeated listenings reveal more and more.
This is a total team effort on the part of Warren and the members of Railroad Earth, but it is impossible not to acknowledge the brilliant contribution of RRE’s Tim Carbone, whose fiddle is a key feature on this album. You hear that immediately on the very first track, “Is It Me Or You.” His doleful introduction sets the stage for a song Warren wrote back in the ‘80s. Carbone’s playing is reminiscent of Darol Anger, Sam Bush, Casey Driessen and a host of other amazing fiddle players.
Of the thirteen tracks on the album, seven are by Warren, another two Warren co-wrote, three are by important mentors from Asheville, and the last is a Fleetwood Mac song Warren has often performed with Grace Potter.
In the outstanding album liner notes (five pages), Warren carefully explains how he became attracted to the music field and began sneaking into Asheville clubs to hear local legends. He mentions several musicians who allowed him to sit in, mentoring him, teaching about folk music, the blues, and bluegrass. “When I decided to finally record Ashes and Dust, which is decades in the making from a songwriting standpoint, I felt it was important to acknowledge the connection between myself and these Asheville-area songwriters, as this project, in many ways, represents a ‘full circle’ for me,” Warren explains.
“Coal Tattoo” was penned by Billy Edd Wheeler. When Warren was playing in the band Red Wing with Ray Sisk and Malcolm Holcombe, two other Asheville mentors, they played this one often. As the layers build, you appreciate more and more the contributions of RRE. Andy Goessling, truly a multi-instrumentalist, steps up first on banjo, followed by John Skehan’s mandolin. Carbone is huge again, and Carey Harmon’s drums punctuate the song perfectly. It is the story of a coal miner, a working man, a theme Warren taps often here, harkening back to that first time you heard “Mule.”
Warren honors another mentor Larry Rhodes, who taught Warren his composition “Stranded in Self-Pity.” This is a bouncy blues, Warren imploring the band: “Don’t you play no blues tonight.” It is a country music-New Orleans mashup, and it’s perfect. Skehan plays piano here, and Goessling brings out his clarinet. This track could easily be a Klezmer tune. Warren takes a fine solo here (suffice it to say that his guitars are centerpieces in each song: electric, acoustic and slide). And consider this brilliant couplet by Rhodes: “‘Cause she’s in New York City, and I’m stranded in self-pity.”
The third tune by an Asheville mentor is “Glory Road,” another song Warren has performed often. The story of a bounty hunter bringing in a dead “boy with my bullet in his chest” is poignant and expressive, penned by Ray Sisk. Warren’s acoustic guitar is just right. And RRE makes it superb.
This song appears in three forms: on the regular CD, on the bonus CD as a demo, and on the disk made available to those who pre-ordered. It also appears on the 2003 solo album Live at Bonnaroo. The three versions here offer a real contrast. The demo is just that, stripped down to vocal and guitar. The pre-order disk has five songs recorded in 2012 at the Capitol in Port Chester. Warren explains that the collaboration with RRE began at Del Fest earlier that year, where “a few of the guys [joined] me for a handful of songs.” They had a little rehearsal time before the Capitol set, but clearly at that point RRE were just backing him up. On this regular album track, Warren and RRE are full partners in the enterprise.
“Blue Maiden’s Tale” is one Warren leaves open to interpretation. Carbone again, and Skehan this time on brushes. You would swear that Warren is double-tracking his voice, but it is Todd Sheaffer, the singer (and guitarist) for RRE, singing harmony throughout the album. Their voices are twin brothers.
They return to the working man theme with the heart-wrenching “Company Man,” written in the voice of a man born in the late ‘30s, but this song is as relevant now as ever. In his commentary, Warren says, “This one is personal.” This line speaks libraries, not just volumes: “Never thought I’d be starting over at this stage, taking shit from some punk half my age.” Goessling is heard here prominently on steel guitar, the drums again drive home every issue, and fiddle and mandolin have solos.
The next song he describes as “very personal.” The story of a man at a party but by himself unfolds in “New Year’s Eve,” a depressing tale in which he manages to find a little optimism. Steel guitar and fiddle again are out front, and Harmon’s slow rhythm mimics the slow pace of a whiskey-filled reminiscence.
“Gold Dust Woman” is the Stevie Nicks composition made famous on Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors. Warren and Grace Potter have performed this song together a number of times, and Grace was as eager as Warren to get a proper studio version. No matter how much you love the Mac version, this one will move you. Carbone’s fiddle is outstanding, and the three-part harmonies are filled out by Sheaffer.
“Beat Down in the Dust” is a severely cynical song. Warren: “Anyone who hears the song will realize that the character in the song is not me and maybe actually shares the opposite of my views.” Fiddle, mandolin and acoustic guitar help to drive the point home: “And we can’t let go of our power, ‘Cause we’re rich and we’re straight and we’re white.” WOW.
Warren tells the story of proposing the song “Wanderlust,” a song that features harmonica. When he pitched the idea to RRE, explaining that his demo from years back featured Mickey Rafael (Willie Nelson Band), RRE insisted on Rafael’s inclusion, despite the fact that “two of the guys in RRE also play harmonica.” Superb singer-songwriter Shawn Colvin adds harmony vocals. Slide and steel guitar are featured.
“Spots of Time” is one of the tunes Warren co-wrote, this one with Phil Lesh. Lesh gave Warren a title and a melody, and the song was built around those. Andrew Altman, the fine RRE bass player whose low end anchors this project, was not available on the day this was recorded, nor was Harmon, so Warren enlisted two ringers he knew: Oteil Burbridge and Marc Quinones, his ABB bandmates. There is a tribal drum feel on the most rocking song on the album, with Carbone again featured, and Warren knocks out another great solo. “Do you remember how young we were, or is it just me, Imagining like I always do that we were once wild and free?”
Another song Warren has been performing for some time appears here: “Hallelujah Boulevard.” Appropriately, it begins with an other-worldly sound, stripped down to the basics, Harmon using mallets on the drums. This one is another “very personal” expression about the search for heaven and the question of its very existence.
Finally, track 13. This one was co-written with Todd Shearer, who adds guitar to this as well as his vocals. Goessling’s steel guitar stands out on this political statement. “Time is of the essence so they say. We’re not supposed to waste it — so we do. The changes that we need are gonna come, But it’s up to me and you.”
It’s a masterpiece, nothing less.
The bonus disk (tracks listed below) contains four demos and one live recording of “Hallelujah Boulevard” from 2008 with an interesting intro by Warren. The pre-order disk (titles also below) is a real treat. In addition to “Glory Road,” there is a great cover of “China Doll” (Garcia/Hunter, not Bowie/Pop) and a great take on Robert Johnson’s “Come On In My Kitchen.” Also included is his signature “Patchwork Quilt.” And perhaps the most fun of all is the glorious story of two Southern country lovers in “Two of a Kind, Working on a Full House,” with this nugget: “And sometimes we fight, So we can make up.” And: “We fit together, if you know what I’m talkin’ about.”
Warren Haynes and Railroad Earth play their last show of this tour at the Peach Music Festival this Friday (August 14). He has a solo show the next day at the Lowell (MA) Summer Music Series. At the Lockn’ Music Festival (September 10-13), Gov’t Mule performs, and Warren also plays with Phil Lesh & Friends, including Carlos Santana!
Then the fall tour begins September 22 in Kansas City. Warren will be playing with Jeff Sipe (Apt. Q-258) and Chessboxer, a Nashville trio. In addition, there will be an opening act on non-festival shows. More on Chessboxer and the openers, but first a word about the drummer.
Jeff Sipe (Apt. Q-258) may have the longest resume in the jam field. He is sought after far and wide and has performed with just about everybody. Almost. He is a member of the Aquarium Rescue Unit, recently reunited for an amazing tour. Zambieland Orchestra. Jazz is Dead. Herring, Rodgers and Sipe. Leftover Salmon. WMDS with Keller Williams. Phil & Friends. Bela Fleck. Trey Anastasio Band. Derek Trucks. Did we miss anybody? More recently The Jeff Coffin Mu’Tet. His most recent album is The Jeff Sipe Trio, a superb jazz record. And he and Warren go way back.
Chessboxer features Matt Menefee on banjo, Ross Holmes on violin, and Royal Masat on upright bass. These characters describe their genre as “Mentals of the Instru variety.” They are a trio interested in orchestral music. They will also open some of the shows on the tour.
In addition, these artists will open (individually) some of the shows on the tour: Chris Stapleton, Justin Townes Earle, and Gill Landry. Warren is truly excited for you to learn more about these fine singer-songwriters. It promises to be a superb tour.
Get your tickets, and RUN, DON’T WALK to buy Ashes and Dust!
[ASHES & DUST: Is It Me or You, Coal Tattoo, Blue Maiden’s Tale, Company Man, New Year’s Eve, Stranded in Self-Pity, Glory Road, Gold Dust Woman, Beat Down the Dust, Wanderlust, Spots of Time, Hallelujah Boulevard, Word on the Wind]
[BONUS DISK: Company Man (demo), New Year’s Eve (demo), Glory Road (demo), Wanderlust (demo), Hallelujah Boulevard (live 12.28.08)]
[PREORDER DISK (live 10.11.12): Two of a Kind, Working On a Full House, Glory Road, Patchwork Quilt, China Doll, Come On in My Kitchen]