Blues. Folk. Country. Prog. Good Old-Fashioned Southern Americana. Those are the styles on the menu for tonight’s Bluesfest sideshow by Gov’t Mule, with support from Lukas Nelson & Promise of The Real. This is only the third time Mule have headlined in Melbourne in their 24-year history, which has seen them transform from an Allman Brothers side project into the premier Jam band on the world touring circuit today (Phish remain the kings in Mule’s native US, but rarely venture outside the country).

Lukas Nelson is the son of legendary country artist Willie Nelson, but his musical style is nothing like his father’s. Instead of mellow acoustic ballads, Nelson and Promise of The Real ripped through a 1 Hour Set of dirty, swampy rhythm and blues, covering topics such as breakups, troubled marriage and interstellar travel. Like Gov’t Mule frontman Warren Haynes, Nelson is an accomplished guitarist, and showed immense energy when playing his solos. His stories and crowd banter were also incredibly well-received, especially by the die-hard POTR fans who were singing along to every song.

POTR’s setlist is more consistent than Mule’s, but they still have all the capability of a jam band. The other band members seemed to be enjoying themselves onstage, especially bassist Corey McCormick, who was hell-bent on breaking the stereotype that bass players are bored by engaging with Nelson and the crowd, as well as singing backing vocals and enthusiastically mouthing the lyrics when he wasn’t singing.

Gov’t Mule are notorious for changing their setlist every night, and this was no exception. Not a single song was repeated from the show in Sydney the previous night, but this didn’t impact the amount of variety in tonight’s song selection. Beginning with a slow but atmospheric rendition of The StaplesHammer & Nails, the band went straight to work exercise got their blues chops, with many of the songs extended well beyond their original running time. Later songs such as Fool’s Moon and Slackjaw Jezebel show how they’re able to combine those chops with great riffs and catchy choruses, while the instrumental jazz-influenced Sco-Mule was an exercise in straight-up jamming over a two-chord vamp.

Many of the audience members tonight were here to see Warren Haynes play guitar, and they were not disappointed. Combining flat-picking and finger picking with rhythm lines, lead lines and slide guitar, Haynes proved that you don’t need to shred on a guitar to give off emotion. Each solo had a clear beginning, middle and end, starting out relatively calm before reaching high intensity at the top of the neck. Bass player Jorgen Carlson also had a distinct style, alternating between a distorted rumble and a clean tone with funky walking basslines. Original Mule drummer Matt Abs may not look like a virtuoso with his hunched posture, but he is a wolf in sheep’s clothing – his syncopated drum lines locked in perfectly with the groove, and he even rocked out with double bass pedals for a couple of intense solos during the show. Finally, there’s Danny Louis, who spent most of the night playing organ, clavinet and electric piano, but also had a chance to showcase his multi-instrumental abilities by blowing out a trumpet solo on Revolution Come, Revolution Go and stepping out with the rest of the band to play rhythm guitar on Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground.

After two hours of non-stop playing, the Mule exited the stage, but we still wanted more. So back they came, bringing Lukas Nelson with them to jam on It Makes No Difference by The Band, and Cortez The Killer by Neil Young. This last song was definitely a crowd-pleaser, as it was the song played by Warren Haynes with The Dave Matthews Band in Central Park back in 2003, bringing him to a wider international audience. This jam went for at least 15 minutes, and the entire crowd was transfixed as Haynes and Nelson traded licks before reaching a massive crescendo, bringing the night to a close after over three hours of music.

Changing up the setlist every night means that a lot of casual fans are going to walk away without hearing their favorites, which is why I was trying so hard to make it to the Sydney show as well. However, I always try to look on the bright side, and I did get some new favorites out of tonight’s gig which I will certainly be listening to whenever I return to the Mule catalogue. I also have a newfound appreciation for Lukas Nelson & POTR – if you are going to Byron Bay Bluesfest this weekend, you must catch both of them.

Photos by Dylan Martin: