By Lee Zimmerman
While his day job with Gov’t Mule and ongoing efforts under his own auspices are the essence of his day job, Warren Haynes is also the go-to guy for any number of established outfits. Whether it’s The Allman Brothers Band, Dave Matthews, the Dead, Phil Lesh & Friends or any other ensemble inclined to call in need of his services. He began playing professionally with David Allan Coe at the age of 20, joined The Nighthawks shortly thereafter, and even co-wrote a hit song with Garth Brooks (“Two of a Kind, Workin’ on a Full House,“ which spent 20 weeks at the top of the country charts”). However, Haynes’ career took off in earnest when he joined the Dickey Betts band at the end of the ‘80s and became fully engaged as part of the latter Allman Brothers’ ensemble.
The Allmans have brought him steady work ever since, spinning off his trademark outfit Gov’t Mule, originally a side project that also included the late Allman Brothers bassist Allen Woody. Ever the multi-tasker, Haynes simultaneously launched a solo career in the mid-‘90s, one that still flourishes through the present day.
Haynes’ latest project, “The Last Waltz 40 Tour: A Celebration of the 40th Anniversary of The Last Waltz,” is no less ambitious. Organized under the auspices of Blackbird Presents and producer Keith Wortman, the idea originated with a two-night, sold-out concert event entitled “Last Waltz New Orleans: A Celebration of the 40th Anniversary of The Last Waltz,” which took place during Jazz Fest 2016 at New Orleans’ historic Saenger Theatre. Haynes and producer/bassist Don Was served as musical directors of the all-star ensemble which included Michael McDonald, Jamey Johnson, John Medeski and Terence Higgins of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band.
GOLDMINE: Did you know these other musicians?
WARREN HAYNES: I had worked with Mike McDonald in the past and knew he would be wonderful for it. I had only recently met Jamey when I heard him at the Skynyrd tribute, at the Fox Theater. He sounded amazing and I immediately thought he would fit into that Levon (Helm) role extremely well. We put one night on sale and it sold out very quickly and then we added another night and did two nights at the theater. The concept was to make it a little more New Orleans, based on the fact that we were in New Orleans and we had lost Allen Toussaint who had done the horn arrangements for the original “Last Waltz.” It came together quickly, based on the fact that we were familiar with each other’s work.
GM: So how much of the original show do you tackle? Is it just The Band material or also the material that featured the special guests — Dylan, Van Morrison, Emmylou Harris and the like?
WH: The show in New Orleans contained about 30% of the special guest/cover type songs. We had Ivan Neville and Cyril Neville and Dave Malone from The Radiators. One night we had Lukas Nelson. Recently, when we did my event in Asheville, the Christmas Jam, we had Bob Weir and Alison Krauss. The concept for the tour is to have different guests in different cities. So we won’t be doing the same songs everywhere we turn up.
GM: You have the special guests lined up?
WH: Yeah, most of them are lined up and the rest of them will fall into place. Going back to the original show in New Orleans, Michael McDonald sang “Forever Young.” It was a completely different slant on it. Cyril Neville did “Who Do You Love” and it took on this whole New Orleans swampy thing and it was completely different from “The Last Waltz” version of it. So there are instances of it where we’re not really adhering to the playbook.
GM: Have The Band’s two surviving members Robbie Robertson or Garth Hudson seen the show? Have they weighed in on it?
WH: I don’t know if either one of them saw the New Orleans show, but Keith had heard from Robbie, but I’m curious what that discussion was about. I had heard he really enjoyed it. I’m not aware of what else they might have spoken about.
GM: What did “The Last Waltz” and The Band’s music mean to you as an individual? Was that an influence on you early on? Did it make a big impact on you musically?
WH: When I finally saw the movie it was so intense to have all those people in one place that were all connected to The Band’s music. It was such an impressive night. Then through the years, it became more and more important, as did The Band’s music to me. I think that music is more important now to me and to a lot of people than it was then.
GM: The Band certainly helped define Americana music long before anyone even knew what Americana was. It was really a turning point in that whole trajectory.
WH: Absolutely. But even more than that it’s become more timeless than any of us really knew.
GM: How do you manage your time? You’re part of so many different ensembles? How do you keep it all straight?
WH: Well, it takes a lot of work and a lot of coordination from my office, and I have a lot of people helping me tie it all together. But I think it’s very important to me to feel some sense of urgency in what I’m doing and not get trapped into doing the same thing all the time, which I absolutely would not enjoy.
GM: Seems you don’t have to worry about that ever happening. But how do you handle conflicts? What would happen if the Dead were to call and ask you to be available next month? How would you shuffle things around to accommodate them?
WH: Well. hopefully you have more advance warning. (chuckles) There have been instances in the past where I had to move a lot of stuff around to accommodate something I really wanted to do, but if you can make it work, you do. There have also been instances where there were things I really wanted to do that I absolutely could not do based on scheduling.
GM: Still, it must be nice to be given those choices.
WH: Well it’s certainly better to be too busy than not busy enough.