Return of the Mule
Mulehead reunites for two-nights at White Water Tavern.
LITTLE ROCK This is where Uncle Kracker receives a slow clap. Uncle Kracker, the comrade of Kid Rock and singer famous for his cover of Dobie Gray's cover of "Drift Away." Uncle Kracker, the reason why Little Rock outfit Mulehead is reuniting. Oh, there are others involved, but let's single out Uncle Kracker.
Weeks before this year's Riverfest, organizers contacted Kevin Kerby, the lead singer, guitarist and songwriter of Mulehead, a band known for their Arkansas-stamped alt country sound. Mulehead disbanded in 2004, after celebrating the release of their fourth and final full-length album Finer Thing. Beyond a reunion for 2007's Towncraft festivities, the band — Kerby, drummer Geoff Curran, guitarist Dave Raymond and bassist Brent LaBeau — hadn't played together since an October 2004 show at White Water Tavern.
Would Mulehead be interested in reforming for Riverfest? It was an offer for a Saturday evening slot on the main stage at the Clinton Presidential Center. Short answer: Yes.
"I'd been kind of wanting to do it anyway," Kerby says. "I missed seeing the other guys, and I figured it would be fun."
Mulehead practiced once. It went well. People were informed of the rebirth of the Mule.
"It was going to be us; a regional act, Lucero; and a national act, The Black Crowes," Curran says. "We got excited about it. We had a practice. Then we got ... canned. We told several people about it, and they were all excited. And then we got canned. So we told them that we'd do something to make them happy."
Even though Uncle Kracker stole Mulehead’s Riverfest spot three weeks before the show, the band decided a reunion was needed. Then Travis Hill from Little Rock-based Last Chance Records got involved and as the summer unwound, two nights in late August at White Water Tavern were secured.
It's nine days before the Mulehead reunion. Curran, Kerby and Raymond are gathered around Curran’s kitchen table, awaiting the arrival of LaBeau so the band can practice for the third time in 2010. Between discussions of the distribution of the Isaac Alexander-designed poster for the reunion show, Steve Martin and The Jerk, the trio discuss what it means for Mulehead to be back.
"It's fun to play together cause we play together well," Kerby says. "It's kind of easier than I thought it would be."
"I love these songs," Curran says. "I loved them then. I love them now. We just had a ball. I loved those times we had. It's nice to crawl back into that mindset."
The times were 1998 to 2004. Four albums, a lot of drinking, a lot of rambunctious shows and a lot of good times.
"It's a veteran's meeting. We get back together and rehash the times," Raymond says.
The three present Mulehead members recount a showcase show in Nashville, Tenn. Before the band took the stage, the quartet drank the backstage beer. Not just their backstage beer, but the backstage beer for all the bands playing that night. And asked for more. During the show, the band dedicated each and every tune to Buck Owens, a man who lived outside the Nashville country scene. This was Mulehead. Four Little Rock residents, playing loud country rock 'n' roll with "Mexican Telecasters covered in alien stickers."
Following the show, Curran says he remembers lying on the floor backstage and wondering aloud: "What do you think we'd sound like if we'd just drink water?"
The band jokes this weekend they'll discover the answer to that question, to which Raymond adds: "It's going to be hard to be funny."
The guys of Mulehead are a little older, a little wiser. The stories of 10 years ago are great stories. But they are not the stories of the band now. The plan for the shows is to triumphantly run through about 30 tracks, with a setlist that includes two tunes from Never Again, five from The Gospel Accordion II, 11 from Rocket Surgery and six from Finer Thing along with some outtakes and four covers, including The Who's "Squeeze Box." Even though the band is divvying up the tunes between two nights, the band expects the shows to be two-plus hours long each with a core set of tunes being played both nights. The band might even take requests.
"We aim to please," Kerby says. "Kind of."
Practicing is as much relearning the tunes as getting into the mindset of what it means to play in a rock 'n' roll band with a country rhythm. Near his drumstool, Curran has a small stereo with CD player. Mulehead CDs are stacked next to it. He mentions he's been playing along with the CDs for weeks, resparking that snare-drum beat rhythm that ignited so many Mulehead tunes. He's also "had to get back into physical shape" just to play that fast, that tight and that long.
"I love playing these songs," he says. "They are a blast."
By this time LaBeau has joined his bandmates at Curran’s home studio, Tusk Of Jaguar — named after a Loudness member's solo work. The rehearsal starts with The Gospel Accordion II track "One of These Days" before moving into "Dig My Grave" from the same album. The third tune is Rocket Surgery's "Bring Me My Medicine."
The quartet form a tight rectangle, facing in toward each other. Kerby kicks off the chords of "Bring Me My Medicine." He stops.
"Let me start over," he says. "Got it now."
He fires up the tune again. LaBeau and Kerby’s vocal phrasing is a little off on the harmonies. It's a little rough, and the band decides to run through it again.
The second time through, LaBeau and Kerby’s vocal phrasing matches. Kerby evokes the last ride of Hank Williams in that Cadillac, hurtling the dead country superstar through the night. Raymond buries himself in his solo, and the snare-powered, shake, rattle and rock 'n' roll sound of the band shakes the small studio. The electrified country boogie monster comes alive. Mulehead lives. For just two more nights.
See the show:
Mulehead returns to White Water Tavern on Friday and Saturday night. The Friday show kicks off with Slobberbone leader Brent Best at 10 p.m., and Saturday night will feature a special guest as opening act at 10 p.m. Advance tickets are $10 with any remaining tickets $12 day of show. Advance tickets are available through www.lastchancerecords.com.