I love being wrong (I seem to do that a lot). And I love being really, really wrong. Which I was last Friday (October 23) at the Warren Haynes Ashes and Dust concert at Jannus Live in St. Petersburg.
I’ve had the privilege of seeing Mr. Haynes 40 times, with Gov’t Mule, with the Allman Brothers Band, and with his own band. Not to mention many sit-ins. I was truly excited to see him touring on the brilliant new acoustic album Ashes and Dust recorded with Railroad Earth. I knew it would be great. My best friend drove in from Texas to experience it with me.
I simply was NOT expecting the phenomenal ass-kicking I got at the show. In retrospect, I should not have been surprised, for two reasons.  Warren Haynes, because nothing he does is ever “half-assed.” And  Jeff Sipe (Apt. Q-258), because there is no better drummer on the scene than Sipe. Period. The end.
The other aspect that should not have been a surprise was Chessboxer, the Nashville trio Warren selected for this extensive tour. Few people knew anything about them before. I assure you they do know. These boys were simply terrific, absolutely the perfect band to accompany Warren on this tour. Chess boxer is: Matt Menefee, banjo, electric banjo, guitar and mandolin; Ross Holmes; Violin; and Royal Masat, upright bass and electric bass. Lots more about them in a moment.
Ashes and Dust is a stunning collection of tunes, some of which Warren learned to play as a teen with great Asheville musicians, some he wrote. The working-class perspective we first heard in “Mule” comes to light in a variety of ways on this great recording, and none more so than “Company Man.” I did not realize until I heard the fine interview WMNF’s Wayne Tagle (In the Groove) did with Warren (recorded before but broadcast after the show) that the song is about his dad.
Chessboxer hit the stage shortly after 7:30 (as Warren pointed out, they ran the tour like clockwork), and immediately they grabbed hold of the crowd’s collective lapels (OK, there might not have been too many lapels there). These guys were clearly superb musicians, and their vocals were great as well. This was going to be a real treat!
The band played traditional bluegrass with brilliance. Time and again Menefee was ripping great solos, with Holmes right with him on fiddle, and Masat was awesome on the double bass. I missed song titles, but I really enjoyed one about a “Little Girl from Tennessee.” Their all-too-short set was seemingly over before it began. Do NOT miss them when they tour near you.
Next up was Justin Townes Earle, who also hails from Nashville (and NYC). He is a singer-songwriter and guitarist, joined onstage by Jim Niehaus, who played guitar and pedal steel. I suspect Earle would sound great in a small club. This, however, was a huge courtyard with people who had just been knocked out by Chessboxer and were gearing up for Warren. There was very little engagement. It was the wrong time slot.
9:19. Everyone could see the band coming down the wrought-iron spiral staircase. And it took all of about ten seconds for me to understand just how wrong I was in underestimating what was about to unfold. This was incredible, right out of the gate. Somehow, Bobby and I had secured spots on the rail stage right before the opening Chessboxer set and stayed put. It was perfect.
“Tough Mama” was accurately named, and we immediately got great solos from Menefee on mandolin, Holmes on fiddle (I know it says he plays a violin, but this was a fiddle, dadgumit), and Warren on guitar. If I had an questions about a setlist, they were answered with the second song: “Patchwork Quilt.” So that’s how it’s going to be, is it? Menefee on banjo, Warren and Holmes all took turns again. Masat started the set on electric bass, and he was massive all night long.
And then there was Sipe. Boy, was there ever! The band played the first track from the album, “Is It Me or Is It You,” and the aforementioned “Company Man.” Everything ROCKED. But then… Sipe led the band into this stunning jazz-bluegrass-rock fusion tune titled “Instrumental Illness.” Most accurate song title EVER. Masat was huge again, then he and Menefee on banjo did battle, followed by Holmes and Warren, and SIPE.
“Do you mind if we get funky with you one more time?” Warren asked. Talk about a rhetorical question! Immediately, it got dirty, nasty, just plain filthy. They used the intro to “Spanish Moon” before veering off (not very far) into “Skin It Back.” Menefee had whipped out his electric banjo, Warren wailed on the slide, and it was sick, sick, sick.
Where do you go from there? The answer, obviously, was “Angel Band” into “Soulshine.” Set your flamethrowers to immolate: “Soulshine” doesn’t move me much. But this version was excellent. And then it was Mr. Sipe again on a drum segue that led into Warren’s jazzy version of “All Along the Watchtower,” which grew funkier and morphed into and back out of “Troubled Mind Jam.”
“Blue Skies?” Sure! This was a joyful, bouncy take on this ABB classic, perfectly rendered. And then the band tackled “Gold Dust Woman,” the Fleetwood Mac classic covered on the album in a duet with Grace Potter. How would it fare without Potter. As another DJ on WMNF said later, “Never mind, Miss Potter. Don’t need you.” Warren didn’t. And at the end of the song he played his slide like a kazoo! Warren was having a better time than anybody else there. He does NOT have a poker face!
Next up was a lovely reading of Jerry Garcia’s “Comes a Time.” Somewhere along the line Masat had switched to the double bass, later to change back to electric. Then Warren unleashed Sipe again, followed by “Dusk to Dawn.” Holmes had another superb turn on fiddle. There was another guitar player stage left the entire set (??) who played acoustic and electric and often traded instruments with Menefee, a nice addition to the set.
One of the best songs on the album is “Stranded in Self-Pity,” written by Larry Rhodes, another of Haynes’ Asheville mentors. How are you going to beat this: “‘Cause she’s in New York City, and I’m stranded in self-pity.” Warren is such a wonderful gospel belter, and this was spot-on. The tune led directly to another turn on the kit for Sipe.
Warren’s crowd-prodding is the stuff of legends: “Oh, it’s good to SEE ya!” “How are y’all doing this evening?” My favorite was: “St. Pete, can you help take us to New Orleans?” HUGE roar from the crowd. And that’s another thing. I had underestimated how many people would be there. The place was jam-packed.
The drums turned into the perfect intro to “Beat Down the Dust.” Haynes’s playing is so jazzy, and this was an amazing version of the song. Warren thanked everyone for coming before blasting “Spots of Time,” the other track best known from Ashes and Dust.
The Jannus Live courtyard was in near-pandemonium. The band came back out, this time with Earle and Niehaus. Warren laughed and said, “You people are CRAZY!” Which was correct. They settled into a nice version of “Willin’,” with Warren and Earle trading stanzas. And the ten-minute closer was a rousing “Jessica.” Sipe was off the hook, the chain, and whatever else you’ve got.
WOW. Just wow. It’s Warren’s world. We’re just lucky he loves playing for us so much. This was as great a performance as I have ever seen from him.
And a sincere shout-out to the security crew led by Larry (if you’ve been to Jannus or the Ringside, then you know). Admittedly, this was not a tough crowd, but they did a great and respectful job. Kudos to Maurice for smiling with us all night and attending to the young lady near us who just needed some water. Bravo!
[WH SETLIST: Tough Mama, Patchwork Quilt, Is It Me or You, Company Man, Instrumental Illness, Skin It Back, Angel Band > Soulshine, All Along the Watchtower > Troubled Mind Jam > All Along the Watchtower, Blue Sky, Gold Dust Woman, Comes a Time, Dusk Till Dawn, Stranded in Self-Pity > Drums, Drum Intro > Beat Down the Dust, Spots of Time; E: Willin’, Jessica]
Here is a link to the Muletracks download.
All YouTube videos courtesy of WardenJune.