Warren Haynes on the Power of Live

Dean Budnick on July 28, 2020
Warren Haynes on the Power of Live

Derek Trucks, Warren Haynes and Jimmy Vivino at Love Rocks NYC – photo by Dino Perrucci

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In this moment of social distancing and turmoil, many of us are yearning for the collective inspiration and joy that is unique to the concert experience. In a special Power of Live section that appears in our new issue, a number of singular voices chime in with their thoughts on the importance of in-person gatherings.

You can look back at previous Power of Live interviews with Trey Anastasio, Jon Batiste, Mickey Hart, Jason Isbell, Robert Mercurio and Bonnie Raitt.

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Warren Haynes participated in two of the last major live music events that took place in New York City before the suspension of such gatherings. On March 10, he performed at Madison Square Garden, reuniting with Jaimoe, Derek Trucks, Oteil Burbridge and Marc Quiñones for “The Brothers: Celebrating 50 Years of the Allman Brothers Band.” Two days later, Haynes appeared at the Beacon Theatre with old friends Dave Matthews, Jackson Browne, Chris Robinson and Rich Robinson for the Love Rocks NYC benefit concert, which took place before a limited audience due to coronavirus concerns.

You performed at two of the final large-scale performances in New York City. Can you share your perspective on what those days were like for you?

When we were getting close to the Madison Square Garden show, everybody was starting to wonder, “Are we going to be able to do this?” And, fortunately, we were able to make it in just under the wire. We were the last big hurrah.

Then, when I did Love Rocks a couple of days later at the Beacon, it was a friends and family only audience. But even then, people were starting to get this feeling: “We’ve got to take this very seriously. It’s further along than any of us realized.” And that turned out to be an understatement. Love Rocks turned out to be where Jackson Browne got sick— and where Larry Campbell and some other people got sick as well.

I remember seeing Jackson and my natural instinct was to go give him a hug. We got a few feet away from each other, then automatically did the elbow thing. We kind of smiled and laughed and said, “Well, I guess that’s the way it’s gotta be.” That’s when everybody started getting the sense that this really is a force to be reckoned with and, over the next few days, every live event started to get canceled. We were all starting to get the sense that performing live in front of an audience could be a thing of the past for quite some time. It took a while to sink in. Of course, everybody’s hoping that there’s going to be some amazing news that changes everything. But I think, regardless of how well things go as far as making progress and vaccinations and all that sort of stuff, it’s still going to be a different world for a long time.

I was talking with all the guys in Mule the other day. We’ve all talked individually, but that was the first time we’d had a conference call and all talked at the same time. And I could tell we were all kind of feeling the same way. Even if there is a show booked somewhere, if it requires air travel— at least at this point in time—nobody’s excited about putting themselves and others at risk. So we’re all having to look at a future that’s painted differently and we’re having to reinvent.

To what extent has the quarantine impacted your creativity?

I have been writing more than I’ve written probably since 1987. That’s one of the few upsides to this whole thing—another one is that there’s a lot of family time. But I’m really sinking myself into writing and gradually coming up with creative ways to share our music. We’ve also been thinking about music that we can release in the future and not looking at it in the traditional sense of spacing releases out so they don’t interfere and compete with each other. We’re thinking, “There are probably three or four things that we can put out.” Some of those things were already in the works and we were planning on releasing them anyway. Others are a little more outside of the box—“What music do we have that we’ve always wanted to share but haven’t gotten around to yet?”

Has the subject matter of your songs shifted while you’ve been sheltering in place?

In the beginning, my impulse was to go the other direction and not write about the current situation, partially because I feel there’s going to be thousands of songs dealing with that same subject matter. And I also just want to dwell on the positive side. I’ve never been a bright and shiny songwriter, for the most part, and, for whatever reason, I’ve been feeling like it’s time to focus on the positive stuff in life. So the first eight or 10 songs that I wrote were much more about positivity. I’ve always maintained, in the past, that when I’m happy, I don’t need to write a song. I just want to enjoy my life and be happy. It’s when I’m not happy that I feel the need to get that out.

But now that’s not really the driving force behind things, and I also feel like there’s a forced need for me to look at things differently. I’ve been writing songs for a long time and we, as songwriters, need encouragement and influence and enticement to shake things up and to go in different directions. Nobody wants to keep writing what they wrote five, 10, 20 years ago. So, I’m taking this opportunity to write about a lot of different subject matters that maybe I haven’t explored much in the past. I was already kind of headed down that road anyway and then this just intensified that.

As you’ve been writing those songs, have you had a particular project in mind for them?

Over the past two or three years, I’ve been writing a lot of songs that I can only describe as being somewhere in between Man in Motion and Ashes & Dust—some country-soul, Muscle Shoals-type stuff. Some of it has been influenced by The Band and that direction of songwriting.

But I’ve also been writing some instrumental music for the first time in a long time that I’m looking at as being earmarked for Gov’t Mule. One of them is inspired by Frank Zappa and one of them is inspired by Charles Mingus. So I go through different phases. For a week or so, I’ll be mostly writing on the acoustic guitar or writing lyrics. Then the following week, I’ll concentrate on electric guitar and just put down a bunch of abstract ideas that I’ll piece together at a later date. My songs tend to start with the lyrics if they’re mid-tempo or down-tempo and with the music if they’re up-tempo. I don’t plan it that way. That just seems to be what happens.

Thinking back to your earliest live music experiences as an audience member, can you recall a particular show you attended that led you down your current path?

I was around 12 when I got my first guitar and, prior to that, I can recall hearing some local musicians around Asheville—be it bluegrass musicians or folk musicians. I also remember stumbling into a neighbor’s house one time and there was a soul band rehearsing. In hindsight, I have no idea if they were any good or not, but the way it affected me at that moment was unbelievable. It was the greatest thing I’d ever heard. I have a visual memory of that and, in a way, I think that it set me on a course of thinking, “I’d like to do this” or “I can do this” or “Isn’t this great?” or whatever the mindset was.

My first concert experience was when I was 12. I went to see the Edgar Winter Group when “Frankenstein” was on the radio. It was amazing and the opening act was Marshall Tucker Band, who none of us had heard of at that time. Even for a 12 year old, the power of the live performance was just overwhelming. It will never be replaced. We’re going to have to figure out ways of bringing that power to a different scenario.

What do you think that will look like?

It’s going to take a lot of creativity and a lot of smart people putting their heads together to reinvent this whole scene and figure out how—even if we can’t make it as lucrative as it once was—it can still be workable. And that relates to the same message that applies to the whole world. I heard Obama say, “What good is it to have all this money if everybody around you is poor and sick and dying?” So unless we can solve the problems that are upon the world right now, it doesn’t really behoove anybody to be able to remove themselves from it. Some people who may have doubted that are changing their minds based on today’s reality, which was yesterday’s reality as well. It’s just that today’s version is more intensified.

People are going to start looking at what’s really important in life and material things are going to become less important. In Asheville, that philosophy has been going on for over 10 years now. Communities there are living off the land and becoming more environmentally conscious and friendly. America has been a little reluctant to pay attention to the global crisis that has been all around us. But, now, everybody’s going to have to start paying attention. It’s not that hard to think of it this way: We’re heading off a cliff unless we build a parachute.

I also think right now there is an opportunity for not just the music business but the entire music world. Even if you take the business part away, it’s important for music to not only survive but also to thrive. It needs to reinvent itself and spread out in a lot of different directions. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, the creativity was flowing based on a lot of forced situations, some of which were very negative. If you think about history, whenever there’s a war or famine and stuff like that, a lot of great music rises out of that turmoil. I have a feeling that’s going to be the case because we’re overdue for a new wave of great music. And I was starting to sense that during the past five or so years. Prior to that, I felt like there were 10 or so years of really boring, mundane music. Now, I’m starting to hear inspired music on the horizon. So, maybe that’s a good part of this bleak picture. We are all going to have to figure out how to take care of each other.

Those of us that are part of a musical community, and especially a live music community, are missing something in our lives right now. It’s creating an empty space that is going to have to be filled at some point. It’s just not the same to listen to your favorite records or to stream a live recording. Even if you’ve got some massive screen and a great sound system, it’s not the same as being part of it. And that’s what we all love about the live experience: There’s an energy in the room and it’s a collective energy.

People often ask me, “Would you rather play in front of a small crowd or a big crowd?” I usually answer, “Well, there’s obvious advantages and disadvantages to both.” I would always say a place around the size of the Beacon Theatre—3,000 seats—is an ideal compromise because you feel some of this massive energy that you get from an enormous crowd and you get some of the intimacy that you feel from a small crowd.

When you’re in front of a small audience, there’s this one-on-one connection that you can actually experience both from the stage and from the audience. Then with a big crowd—like when we did Woodstock in ‘94 for 350,000 people—there’s nothing else like that big wave of energy. At the same time, you don’t have the intimacy. And I would not be happy if that was the only live experience I was able to be a part of. Having said that, we’re heading toward a new abnormal—I don’t want to call it the new normal. There’s nothing normal about it, but we’re headed toward something and it’s gonna have to be something that we can achieve without being stupid. In the beginning, it’s going to appear a little bizarre.

I saw a thing about sports stadiums, how they’re considering that people who have been quarantined together can sit together— maybe five or six people in a little cluster. They’d have to be X amount of feet from the next cluster of people. That’s not terrible, but there’s nothing completely safe about any of the scenarios right now.

Eventually, the risk factor will be so low that we can feel like it’s OK to hug our neighbors again and dance with a bunch of strangers to the same live rhythm. But it’s a day at a time—there are thousands of brains working on this right now and there’s going to be thousands of great ideas that come forward. We will prevail and live music will prevail.