Scent of a Mule
Historian: Chris Bertolet (bertoletdown)
Last Update: 2016-03-07
Bluegrass + aliens = spacegrass. Such is the warped algebra of this Mike Gordon opus.
“Scent of a Mule” describes an alien invasion gone amok. Instead of invading a metropolis with laser beams trained on command and communications targets, or centers of finance, this hapless alien landing force alights on Kitty’s farm. But Kitty is prepared, and offers both a carrot and a stick. On behalf of Tomahawk County, she insists that the aliens mind their manners, or “you’ll smell my mule.” Newly and properly respectful, they fall into line and step inside for a taste of Kitty’s lemonade. And they liked it. They really liked it!
Sally Field 2007 Uncensored Emmy Speech
“Mule” was one of the songs written and recorded for Hoist that was not played live until after the album’s release. Mike had penned the lyrics some time before; he had the first verse as far back as May 1993. The music for the third verse came much later, and consists of the chords and phonemes of the chorus played backwards. (In other words, if you play the chorus backwards, you get the third verse). The studio version, recorded in late 1993/early 1994, features Béla Fleck on banjo; he can be seen in the Tracking video, as can Mike, bellowing the lyrics while stinking drunk.
When the band took “Mule” on the road, they adorned it with a brief piano solo – reminiscent of silent movie accompaniment – that gave way to a klezmer riff, accompanied often by suitably peculiar dance choreography from Mike and Trey. By 1995, this sequence evolved into the “Mule Duel,” a more conversational approach to the improvisational section, with Trey and Page trading statements over an ever-accelerating tempo until the whole piece resolves to the chorus.
Many latter-era “Mules” (beginning with 7/14/13 MPP) feature yet another approach to the jam section that revolves around Fishman’s Marimba Lumina – a MIDI controller that lets a musician play music via a control surface that’s based on the layout of a traditional marimba. These Marimba Lumina interludes often, but not always, find the other players abandoning their normal instruments in lieu of percussion.
Absurdity breeds absurdity, and so it is with “Scent of a Mule,” which seems to inspire departures into distinctly unusual quadrants of musical space. Some such memorable versions of "Scent" include: 6/26/94 (part of the Hoist set); 7/13/94 (“BBFCFM” lyrics to “Scent” music); 10/18/94 (with Béla Fleck); 6/6/96 (with a “Cocaine” jam and Trey taking over Page’s keyboards); 7/23/96 (the duel is a cappella); 8/17/96 (Fish gets a drum solo instead of the usual duel); 10/27/96 (with “Catapult” and a theremin solo from Page); 12/30/96 (with comedian Steven Wright playing a triangle); 11/28/98 (duel between Fish and Mike, squared off with matching Viking helmets); 7/29/03 (with a tease of “Wouldn’t It be Loverly” from My Fair Lady); 4/15/04 (jam section replaced with godawful take on Jay-Z's "Girls Girls Girls"); 8/11/04 (jam section replaced with "Tears of a Clown"); 7/14/13 (Marimba Lumina debut); and 10/31/14 (complete freakout in keeping with the Chilling, Thrilling theme of the evening).
"Scent of a Mule" – The Muppets