Though Warren Haynes’ annual Christmas Jam has become synonymous with legendary performances and monumental collaborations, it should have surprised no one that the 23rd edition would exceed even those lofty expectations. It’s an enigmatic number, 23, and the significance of the sum of the month (12) and year (11), along with the lunar eclipse that happened during the show, imparted a mystical air to the proceedings. The dazed expressions that many wore after the show indicated the marked intensity of this year’s marathon party, which was surely one of the most remarkable in the event’s storied history. The above average (for the Jam – astronomical for any other occasion) lineup surely stoked anticipation and ultimately did not disappoint.
The Christmas Jam is a relatively grueling affair by concert standards. The music alone never fails to span 8-plus hours, year in and year out. A 12 or 15 hour investment is not uncommon for those who angle to get the best seats inside the boxlike Civic Center arena, and the dedicated were treated to transcendent playing and boundless energy all night. Haynes signaled the start around 7 PM with a quick rendition of “And It Stoned Me” before giving way to the Christmas Jam Band. Now an ever-evolving staple of the Jam, The Christmas Jam Band featured cornerstone participants like Audley Freed and Kevn Kinney along with Jackie Greene, drummer Brad Pemberton, and bassist Robert Kearns. Kinney’s own “Never Gonna Change” and “Waiting on Tomorrow” preceded a surprisingly meaty and seamless run through Pink Floyd’s “Breathe,” Elton John’s “Rocket Man,” and The Beatles’ “I Got A Feeling,” comprising a fine warm-up set.
Fans of instrumental daring were no doubt pleased by the dream lineup of Bela Fleck, Jimmy Herring, Bill Evans, and Jeff Sipe, who invited Nashville violinist Casey Dreissen and a duo of bassists to their notemongering hoedown. Fleck warmed up with a bit of improv and a nod to “Jed Clampitt” before the band joined him, and the resulting 45 minutes overflowed with high-minded fusion compositions and brain-boggling jams. Fleck, who humorously introduced Herring as “Jimmy Sipe,” led the obviously well-rehearsed group through his own “Monkey See” and “Spanish Point,” letting the band run wild all the while. Herring’s “Scapegoat Blues” rolled through densely harmonized hooks and impossibly fluent solos, while Fleck found considerable comfort in the sincere tones of Evans’ trademark tune “Soulgrass.”
Los Lobos, grizzled veterans that they are, brought sounds alternately menacing and joyful to their set, which was the sleeper hit of the night. Older gems like “Don’t Worry Baby,” “The Neighborhood” and “I Walk Alone” thrived on David Hidalgo’s snarling, often biting guitar lines, Steve Berlin’s perfect sax work, and the band’s classic interpretation of blues music. “Revolution” proved a groovy good time that got the whole arena moving with some serious jazz flute action and sultry rhythms, eventually transitioning neatly into the even sexier grind of “Rattlesnake Shake.” The Latin indulgence of “Chuco’s Cumbia” and “La Venganza de Los Pelados” translated surprisingly well to the arena, but the climax of the set was the moment that found the heat turned all the way up. The Christmas Jam was officially on as Warren Haynes emerged to start the second part of his lengthy evening, adding some sizzling slide guitar and even a “Norwegian Wood” tease to a quick “Not Fade Away.” The first Grateful Dead tune of the night, “Bertha,” sprinted away under the guidance of guest Jackie Greene’s vocals and Haynes’ relentless slide solo. Apparently in a playful mood, Haynes teased the throng with a tease of “Jessica” during the song’s chugging jam, spurring Hidalgo to throttle down the band and request more “slide guitar, man.”
The atmosphere inside the Civic Center grew increasingly thick as the Phil Lesh and Friends set drew closer. When Lesh, Haynes, Greene, drummer Joe Russo, and keyboardist Jeff Chimenti took the stage with “Shakedown Street,” the place practically exploded in a rush of smiles and light. The crowds at the Christmas Jam are noted for friendliness, and this year’s group was no exception. From the floor to the upper reaches, the attendees were overwhelmingly happy to see each other and a peaceful vibe prevailed. After a somewhat rickety “Deal,” the band regrouped to deliver the natural pairing of “Viola Lee Blues,” which ended up in full-bore improvisation, and “Caution (Do Not Stop On Tracks),” which hit a wild gospel groove and featured Haynes doing his best Pigpen vocal riff impersonation. Continuing with the timeless combo of “China Cat Sunflower > I Know You Rider,” the quintet fearlessly embarked on another rewarding instrumental excursion that peaked with exuberant piano and soulful guitar work. Then, the concert ascended to still another level, as Jimmy Herring joined the band for a majestic “Dark Star.”
“Dark Star” unfurled with a grandeur befitting one of the greatest live jams ever conceived, beginning as a few minutes of alternately gentle and invigorating instrumental noodling. The song’s dramatic first notes sent a palpable surge of excitement through the crowd, and the band kicked in to a most luxurious groove. The tempo gradually accelerated to a sprint before settling into a bluesy space full of possibility. The possibilities manifested into a brief flash of “The Other One” before a pause and move into The Beatles’ “She Said She Said,” followed by a loose but markedly creative jam back into “Dark Star.” The breathtaking run culminated with a flawless transition into a gripping and triumphant “Wharf Rat,” but the most explosive moment of the set came during “The Other One.” Herring unleashed a volcanic solo that upped the ante for any other guitarist planning to take a swing at “The Other One” for the remainder of history. A spirited “Sugaree” balanced the emotional weight of the previous songs and made for a fine set closer. “Angel Band” in the encore slot felt like a grand finale, but a full set of Gov’t Mule was still to come.
Having focused on Warren Haynes Band for most of 2011, Haynes found himself getting re-acquainted with his Mule mates in a friendly setting where he’s essentially revered. It was no biggie, then, that he botched some lyrics during the fairly standard run of Mule tunes (“Beautifully Broken,” “Banks of the Deep End,” etc) that started the show. He soon found his comfort zone in a big way, particularly during the luxurious 18-minute exploration of “Low Spark of High Heeled Boys” featuring Lesh and Evans. The peak of the show, however, came during Herring and Haynes’ magnificent work on “Dear Prudence,” with Herring lending a heart-wrenching solo and Haynes offering his impassioned singing. His zest spilled over into the searing version of “Inside Outside Woman Blues” that followed, and his crushing guitar work indicated that the Mule was spry and kicking again. While a Doors cover certainly isn’t the way most would expect a night full of Dead and Beatles nods to end, Haynes obviously had a clear vision for the way the thing would end, and ‘When the Music’s Over” was executed with creeping certainty and mystical abandon. The song certainly had some apt lyrics and, after all, who could argue with whatever Haynes decided to do at 3 AM? If the architect of Asheville’s longest and most established rock party wants to end the show with some Doors and a quick “Merry Christmas,” so be it.
photos by Dino Perrucci