25th Annual Warren Haynes Christmas Jam Asheville, NC 12/13 & 12/14/13

Perhaps no yearly event has the explosive potential for collaboration and unforgettable music of Warren Haynes’ annual Christmas Jam in Asheville, and for the 25th iteration of the event, Haynes and company maxed out the lineup and expanded to two grueling nights of music. The result was nearly 20 hours of watching music and wondering what was going to happen next inside the US Cellular Center. The sold-out arena told the story. This event was a huge deal and maybe the single biggest Christmas Jam ever.

Friday night, as the clock sped past midnight, the Phil Lesh Quintet’s version of “Night of a Thousand Stars” could only be interpreted as a nod to a luminous lineup including Widespread Panic, Gov’t Mule, John Scofield, Gregg Allman, Keb’ Mo’, The Aquarium Rescue Unit, Grace Potter, and Michael Franti, among others, plus tons of special guests.

During a marathon such as the Christmas Jam, there are bound to be plenty of exquisite high points and, inevitably, a few unavoidable low points. Friday night’s lineup had a stronger start-to-finish run, while Saturday was more uneven but still filled with peaks as high as the event has ever witnessed. After a quick tune by Haynes and Ray Sisk to start things off, Friday night got rolling from the start and never slowed. Gov’t Mule immediately filled the stage with guests like Bill Evans and Ike Stubblefield for “Opium” and made the setlist pop with “Message in a Bottle” lyric quotes and a stellar “Game Face” that incorporated jams based on “Birdland” and “Mountain Jam”. The quickest stage changeover of the weekend occurred between Mule and Keb’ Mo’, as Charlottesville, VA’s Love Canon entertained the jubilant crowd with bluegrass renditions of 80’s staples “Weird Science”, “Money For Nothing”, and “Sledgehammer”. They would later return, offering chestnuts like Toto’s “Africa” and Bruce Hornsby’s “The Way it Is” between the Phil Lesh and Widespread Panic sets.

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Keb’ Mo’
made a huge impression with his set, which kicked off with the slinky “France” and featured the humorous “Government Cheese” before John Scofield Joined in. Their two songs together – “Every Morning” and “Perpetual Blues Machine” – turned out to be one of the most quietly electrifying segments of the weekend. Next, Scofield and his Uberjam band kept the crowd enraptured for a solid hour with their pulsating flights of fusion, including an exhilarating take on one of the finest modern fusion songs, “Jungle Fiction”. Then, the Jam took flight in the most memorable fashion imaginable, as Widepsread Panic anchored a few hours of the finest playing that this realm of music has to give.

Gregg Allman and Warren Haynes
offered an acoustic set including touchstone Allman compositions like “Midnight Rider” and  “Melissa”, plus Neil Young’s “The Needle And The Damage Done” and a jaw-dropping version of “I Can’t Be Satisfied” with Keb’ Mo’ joining in. Disbelief was rampant in the arena. At the time, after an already legendary sequence of artists, it seemed impossible that there was still guest-laden Phil Lesh and Widespread Panic sets to come.

Lesh, Haynes, Jimmy Herring, John Molo, and Rob Barraco doled out the most experimental set of the weekend as the Jam rolled on with no sign of stopping. Their set fully embraced the wildest and weirdest side of Grateful Dead-style improvisation, with numerous noodling jams dominating the show. The band didn’t make their way though “Mountains Of The Moon > St. Stephen > The Other One > Somewhere Over The Rainbow > The Other One” as much as they found their way through it, the huge progression of songs unfolding one intensely psychedelic instrumental excursion at a time.

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It was nearly 2:30 AM by the time Widespread Panic rolled out with a searing “Disco > Pigeons > Papa’s Home” opening combo, and by the time they stopped after 4 in the morning, a momentous “Surprise Valley > Ride Me High > Surprise Valley” had unfolded, with Randall Bramblett adding some dirty saxophone work in the middle. The night ended with a scorching take on “Jesus Just Left Chicago” with Haynes sitting in, he and Herring’s mighty guitars threatening to demolish the Civic Center right then and there.

Saturday, patrons were allowed into the building earlier, and the old Civic Center practically teemed with action as folks scurried to secure seats and witness more of the same amazing music. Warren chose a Bill Withers tune to open the festivities, and that was a sign we were in for more serious hijinks. Hijinks are the name of Aquarium Rescue Unit’s game, and the titanic instrumental trio of Oteil Burbridge, Jimmy Herring, and Jeff Sipe provided the foundation for keyboardist Matt Slocum and singer/guitarist/chazoidist/notionalist Col. Bruce Hampton to expound upon their thing.

There’s simply no substitute for the unique relationship that this band has, and Col. Bruce was in flustering form, which always makes things more interesting. The set was everything an ARU fan could have wanted for Christmas, with beloved songs like “Basically Frightened” and “Elevator to the Moon” leading into a surreal “Compared to What > Yield Not To Temptation” segment. The stage was swollen with as many as 14 people taking part in a jam on Sun Ra’s “Space Is The Place”, including Haynes, Bill Evans, pedal steel master Roosevelt Collier, Ron Holloway, Mike Barnes, and Casey Driessen. Regarding Driessen during the closing gospel-influenced jam “Right Now”, Hampton exclaimed, “I don’t even know your name!”

The singular highlight of O.A.R.’s set was an energetic version of Led Zeppelin’s “Fool in the Rain” featuring Haynes on guitar. Otherwise, the band’s reggae-influenced pop seemed out of place. Michael Franti fared much better, proving irrepressible even at the end of a five-month tour. He invited Mike Barnes along for the poignant “11:59”, and Jeff Sipe, who proved to be the MVP of the night, filled in on drums as if he had been playing with Franti for years. “Let It Go” and “Say Hey (I Love You)” fostered a communal vibe among the crowd, and the stage buckled under the weight of more guests during “Life Is Better With You”, which found ever-present Christmas Jam veteran Artemis Pyle joining in along with Haynes and others.

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Greg Allman & Friends followed after a lengthy break and provided yet another peak in the evening – in fact it may have been the final peak of the weekend. Gregg’s friends included Warren Haynes and Jeff Sipe along with Audley Freed, Ron Johnson, and Count M’butu. Oteil Burbridge – naturally –  and Ron Holloway joined in to make the set a true celebration of Allman’s tunes, rounding out with an astounding version of “Dreams” and a rollicking “One Way Out” that got the crowd invigorated for one last push to the end of a long weekend. It proved to be the climactic moment, as a lengthy setup time and straightforward set from Grace Potter and The Nocturnals helped soften the impact of the Jam’s final hours. Theirs was the only set not to feature any special guests. As mesmerizing as Potter is in front of her band, it was a quizzical way to proceed at 1:30 AM.

The finale isn’t normally the greatest moment at the Christmas Jam, and this year proved no exception. Even the stupendous re-forming of Sco-Mule couldn’t quite end the Jam on the highest possible note. Don’t misunderstand – the Sco-Mule set was hot, if a bit short. Standout tunes included the opening “Hottentot”, in which Scofield found space during one of his solos to quote “Eleanor Rigby”, and the indulgent 20-minute jam on “Kind of Bird” featuring Bill Evans. But the approaching dawn led the band into a sudden, meandering ending to the set and a quick encore of songs featuring Grace Potter. They’ve done “Gold Dust Woman” so many times, it was hard to envision it as a finale to this otherwise amazing gathering of musicians. Even Haynes admitted that they were running “so damn late” that they had to bang out a quick finale. But even a semi-lackluster ending can’t deaden the impact of one of the most significant musical events that the culture-rich city of Asheville has ever hosted. The 25th Christmas Jam more than lived up to the lofty expectations set by the lineup.

Photos by Brad Kuntz

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4 Responses

  1. Saturday was better, Friday consisted of the Phil Lesh ambien Quintet, I dare anyone to say at 2am they could make it throught that snooze fest. Saturday at had the great Grace Potter(the anti ambien) slotted appropriately, if she cant keep you awake nothing will, followed by the Mule with John Scofield which alone was worth the price of admission. Only problem of the weekend was time between bands

  2. I strongly disagree with PM. The Quintet unleashed my inner Balrog. The “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” was sublime. The “St. Stephen > Other One” leading into “Somewhere” were powerful. “Terrapin Station” shook Asheville’s mountains.

    I agree with the well worded assessment of Bryan Rodgers that Potter and the Nocturnals “softened the impact of the Jam’s final hours”.

    In truth I have nothing to quibble about. I enjoyed three fantastic days of great music.

    Well done Warren! Well done.

  3. Upon considerable reflection after even more considerable recouperating sleep from 2 nights of being up and about until 5am I am hard pressed to say which night I enjoyed more. Certainly Fri night (into Sat morning) was everything familiar to me (not the least of which was Phil and WSP dishing out their classics). But Sat (into Sun morning) was even more mesmerizing as I came into it with lesser expectations that were far FAR exceeded. The uber jam had 15 people on stage (not 14). Grace woke everybody up at a time of morning that would have made such a feat seem unatainable.
    Low points were Phil & Friends extensive noodling, Govt Mule’s Fri set and most of OARs set.
    High points were Phil & Friends Terrapin Station, everything from Gregg Allman’s day 2 electric set, Grace Potter’s entire set and Scofield’s looping jams.
    I regret that I could not keep my eyes open any longer Sunday morning and had to duck out just before Givt Mule’s and Grace Potter’s Gold Dust Woman. Had I known that diddy was around the corner I probably would have managed to stick around.
    Oh, another hightlight: Running into a college buddy and Tecolate, MX Habitat for Humanity fellow volunteer from 25 years ago on the street before the show. Good to see you again Brian!

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