With an unexpectedly strong winter storm covering much of western NC, fans and artists alike had an eventful time making their way to Asheville for the 29th iteration of Warren Haynes’ Christmas Jam. Friday was tough all around; the now-traditional Pre-Jam event was canceled due to the weather, many flights into Asheville and Charlotte were canceled, and drivers found road conditions tedious at best, treacherous at worst.
At least it was only the journey that was arduous, and not the Jam itself – though the new convoluted seating system did befuddle many attendees. The event stretched from 7 PM to 3 AM, as is the custom, but it never dragged or felt endless. Sets were fast-paced and the changeover entertainment was spirited. Pianist Holly Bowling provided walk-in music for the eager horde, sandwiching an original composition between renditions of Phish’s “Free” and Bob Weir’s “Cassidy”, along with “St. Stephen” and “Little Martha”.
Departing from his normal solo acoustic opener, Haynes was joined by ukulele wizard Jake Shimabukuro for an effortless take on “Melissa”, the 2nd Allman Brothers tune of the young night and a clear sign that there would be plenty of much-needed ABB love to come. He then left Shimabukuro to enchant the crowd with “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and his own loop-laden “Dragon”.
The Christmas Jam has a history of including at least one act that falls under the umbrella of “pure country” music, and Margo price certainly fits that bill. Her sound is faithful and her band polished, but it’s her striking stage presence and powerful voice that demand attention. It would have been a treat to see her sit in with some of the bands that followed her, such as Blackberry Smoke or The Avett Brothers, but she never returned to the stage after her set.
Some of the best collaborations of the night were found in the changeover sets. Bowling and Shimabukuro let their genius shine on a twisting, playful version of “Bird Song” and tugged at heartstrings with “Hallelujah”. Later, after a frenetic Avett Brothers set that harkened back to their earlier days, Seth, Scott, Bob, and Joe slid to stage right and kicked off a Warren Haynes mini-set with Merle Haggard’s “If We Make It Through December” and Dylan’s ”You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”.
Heart’s Ann Wilson, still fresh in the minds of jam fans after her appearance with Gov’t Mule at the Lock’n Music Festival, then joined Haynes to contribute to one of the night’s most memorable moments – a tribute to Tom Petty (“Southern Accents”) and Chris Cornell (“I Am The Highway”), the latter of which featured sublime contributions from Shimabukuro.
That tender moment was a well-placed coda to the first part of the evening, because as soon as Trey Anastasio, Russ Lawton, Tony Markellis, and Ray Paczkowski took the stage, the rest of the evening was much wilder – and louder. During the Trey Anastasio Band set, and incrementally throughout the rest of the night, the volume crept upward, eventually winding up in brain-melting territory. Those who were tuned into the Anastasio set didn’t mind, though, because the band was positively locked in from start to finish. Other than a quick “Thanks everybody!” from Trey, there was no chatter – they filled their 70-minute set to the point of overflowing with loose, patient jams and exhilarating instrumental moments. The song selection was interesting as well, as deep thought lyricism (“Burn That Bridge”, “Dark and Down”) traded the spotlight with relative rarities (“Aqui Como Alla”) and mind-expanding Phishy funk (“Sand”, “Gotta Jibboo”).
A fiery “First Tube” closed the set, and Trey quickly joined Warren for another emotional pairing – his own “Miss You” and, perhaps the ultimate Gregg Allman tribute, “Midnight Rider”. Bowling then joined Haynes for a stirring, soulful “Morning Dew”. The meat of the Christmas Jam truly was found in the middle, as the events just before, during, and immediately following the TAB set proved to be the undisputed highlight of the night.
The night’s longest changeover was barely that – more than any other year of the Christmas Jam, the stage crew did a nearly flawless job of making the show happen. In broader terms, the Les Bros set was right on time for the end of 2017, a celebration of some of the songs and artists that have forever become part of our shared canon. A little of the set’s luster was lost when guitarist Jack Pearson and founding ABB member Jaimoe were no-shows, leaving Haynes to lead Gov’t Mule bassist Jorgen Carlsson, percussionist Marc Quinones, and various fringe associates of the ABB family through a set of timeless tunes that was alternately tight and loose.
“Southbound” soared to fantastic heights on the wings of Craig Sorrels’ trumpet, and Marcus King joined in to wail with reckless intensity on the beloved “Dreams” and a raucous version of “Whipping Post”. King’s solo set, billed as Marcus King and Friends, was ill-timed. “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out” is just fine, but at 2 AM, after 7 hours in an arena, it’s basically a lullaby. King is a remarkable musician, but the placement of his set was unfortunate.
As for the Mule, who kicked things off with a couple of warmup tunes at 2 AM and promptly brought Wilson into the fray, they delivered in their chosen role as the band that turns the Christmas Jam lights out almost every year. The songs of Led Zeppelin always seem to be involved in their plan, and “Black Dog”, “Immigrant Song”, and “No Quarter” all received the royal treatment with Wilson’s bombastic vocals. In a fitting twist, they closed the set with a taut version of “Mule”, highlighting Sorrels’ trumpet, which somehow sneaks in as the secret weapon, year after year. This year’s event was fitting for a celebration that has become one of America’s longest-running musical traditions, as Haynes and company always seem to find new ways to invigorate it.
Photos by Brad Kuntz