By Michael Lello
Warren Haynes has been a fine soul singer for several decades, but you can forgive the world for not paying much notice. You’ll have that when you’re known as one of the premier guitarists in rock, leading the hard-charging blues rock band Gov’t Mule and playing classic leads as a member of the Allman Brothers Band and The Dead.
On “Man In Motion,” Haynes’ first solo record since 1993, the multi-faceted musician decides to hone in one particular sound — soul and r&b — and he does it with precision, authenticity and emotion, making for an impressive collection of songs that pay homage to classic styles while retaining his personal musical stamp. His vocals are, for the most part, the main focus, and it’s a good thing to see that part of Haynes’ talent taking center stage — and it’s likely a rewarding situation for Haynes, too, considering his first love, before he even picked up a guitar, was singing r&b and soul standards as a youngster.
The first notes you’ll hear on the album, when the title track kicks things off, are from a piano, not a guitar. “Still life is overrated,” he sings, a busy tour dog speaking from experience. The track is built on funky wah-wah guitars and is later peppered with horns. Despite the focus on vocals and taut song structures, Haynes does take many solos on this album, but they seem to add appropriate expression to the songs, if not also lengthen the songs a bit too much. On the title tune, he takes two solos: one near the middle, where he plays some clipped notes, and a longer one at the end.
After warming up with “Man In Motion,” “River’s Gonna Rise,” which features an optimistic lyric paired with a sad-sounding minor-key theme, and “Every Day Is A Holiday,” a nice cover of the William Bell blues ballad (the album’s lone cover), Haynes delivers two the album’s high points in the form of “Sick Of My Shadow” and “Your Wildest Dreams.”
“Sick Of My Shadow” is extremely funky, with an intro so soaked in wah-wah it’s tough to tell if it’s a trumpet or a guitar. In one aspect, it’s the opposite of “River’s Gonna Rise,” because here Haynes pairs a downcast lyric with jubilant music. Haynes signs about wanting to get away from his own life, but he sounds more like he’s coming to terms with his problems than wallowing. He laments “spending too much time in my black and white world trying to play the blues.” During a mid-song instrumental break, guitar and trumpet go toe-to-toe, but they’re laughing, not crying.
“Your Wildest Dreams” is in the vein of a big, brash Rolling Stones ballad, like “Shine A Light.” It’s an inspirational and cathartic song, Haynes singing of a lost love. He tells the lover, “If you need me, you know where to find me/ I’ll be there in your wildest dreams.” But as the song goes on, the singer lets us know that he’ll only be in her dreams; too much has gone down for him to be available in the here and now. Despite that resoluteness, he shows vulnerability, admitting it won’t be easy for him to stick to his decision to stay away: “I’m not trying to say I won’t break down.” It’s a song rich with emotion and a love song that isn’t simply a kiss-off or a request for reconnection; its emotions are layered and very real.
After the relatively heavy feelings on “Sick Of My Shadow” and “Your Wildest Dreams,” Haynes offers some relief with “On A Real Lonely Night.” He’s coming to terms with lost love again, but he seems to be embracing the good times rather than pine for someone that’s just out of reach. The song bears a lot in common with some of Gov’t Mule’s mid-tempo burners, but he uses a lighter touch. An active horn section playfully spars with Haynes’ guitar for the final few minutes of the song, which extends past the 7-minute mark.
“Hattiesburg Hustle” might be the closest thing to a Gov’t Mule tune on “Man In Motion,” with its story of a down-on-his-luck character and dark, smoky musical vibe, but it fits here, too. “A Friend To You,” meanwhile, is a sultry sax-flavored tune, with Haynes’ robust rhythm guitar providing a solid but malleable foundation that breathes as the song unfolds. Here, he shifts his focus from his own problems to another’s, asking what he could do to help a friend in need.
“Take A Bullet” is fun, classic blues, less of an update on a tradition than a continuation of it.
Haynes closes “Man In Motion” with “Save Me,” an open-hearted, gospel-tinged weeper, a musically and emotionally appropriate conclusion.
The authenticity in this record is in the writing and the arrangements as well as the performances, which are aided by some heavy hitters like George Porter Jr., Ivan Neville, Raymond Webber, Ian McLagan, Ruthie Foster and Ron Holloway. Neville and Foster’s backing vocals, in particular, are tasteful and effective, accentuating or providing counterpoint or context to Haynes’ lead singing.
Haynes has worked with James Hetfield of Metallica, Garth Brooks, Bob Dylan, Kid Rock and the Allmans, to name a few. He is fluent in countless styles, and his tastes are wide and deep. He has said he hopes to record a jazz album and a singer/songwriter album, so “Man In Motion” is just one aspect of that musical personality, but it’s a worthy one. The album is deep, rich and soulful, and it’s a delight to hear Haynes, known to many as a gruff-voiced guitar hero, open his heart and deliver in classic form.