22 Years of Benevolence: Warren Haynes Presents The Christmas Jam

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If there ever was a demonstration of music being a taproot from which goodwill could flow, Warren Haynes Presents: The Christmas Jam would be one of the most poignant examples of them all. From a musical demographic standpoint, it is on par with events such as Live Aid and The Freddie Mercury Tribute: Concert for AIDS Awareness. What sets it apart is the fact that it was born and bred in grassroots; it has a 22 year history, and the devotion of a community that has grown up and with the event. The community, the most vital element of the event, not only cause the event itself to sell out in literal minutes, but also hosts “Before The Jam, Lend a Hand” (which has a waiting list due to the multitudes that want to participate) where concert-goers gather before the event to assist in building a house. It is benevolence and it is viral.

What began as a group of North Carolina musicians gathering to play together and coining the jamboree “The Christmas Jam: Musician’s X-Mas Reunion” held at local club 45 Cherry, was at its core, simply a way for friends and musicians to gather when all were in town for Christmas and do something charitable in the process. From a motive so pure, what has amassed is 22 consecutive years where some of the most prevalent figures in the improvisational/jam genre and beyond have gathered on stages large and small, finally taking root in Asheville’s largest venue, The Asheville Civic Center. But moreover, as a result of the efforts of Haynes and others involved, there have been 16 homes constructed for families in need through Asheville’s Habitat for Humanity.

39.jpgThe history of Christmas Jam is deep. To look at a list of past performers at The Jam is literally like browsing a who’s who in the world of jam. Touting heavy-hitters including Dave Matthews, Allman Brothers, Trey Anastasio, and Phil Lesh amongst others, expectations are high each and every year to see who Warren will snag to join the party. While on paper, the lineup for this year’s Jam was not quite as eye catching as some in years past, especially when Drive-By Truckers cancelled at the last minute; to simply view Christmas Jam on paper is a mistake that many have lived to regret.

Walking into an empty venue that will soon be filled to the brim with spectators is always an experience in which I bask. There is something so peaceful about the vacancy and the reverberation created by the echo of a sound check bouncing off barren floors and walls. However, the feeling experienced when hearing a previously unbeknownst song “Everyday Will Be Like a Holiday” was one that I will never forget. The raspy harshness of Ivan Neville’s voice harmonized with the tenderness of Ruthie Foster and Warren’s tones coupled with the crying Gibson Les Paul prepared me, with welling eyes and chilling spine, for something that I knew would be just as special as I had hoped on the long haul through the winding mountainous roads that lead to Asheville.

The night began with Missing Cats, JoJo Hermann’s (Widespread Panic) collaborative effort, a trio featuring him, Sherman Ewing, and on this night, Cody Dickinson. Welcomed with many “welcome to Christmas Jam JoJo” hoots from the crowd, the outfit subsequently and subtly walked through a short set that centered in the singing and songwriting ability of Ewing. This is a band that is anything but Panic and is revelatory of the necessity of side projects for band members of veteran touring acts. Though the set was short on fireworks and lacking in sit-ins, what it did do amply was set the mood with pure yet provocative lyrics, for a Christmas Jam that would be more structured and less face melting than most…well, this is excepting what was to come next, improg-rock jam aficionados, Umphrey’s McGee.

8.jpgUmphrey’s is everywhere in this current era. While their tenure has in no way just begun, they have done nothing but increasingly make their presence known on the circuit. They were an interesting addition to The Jam in that they do not typify the norm for the event. However, they can play with virtually anyone. This was evidenced by what many would perceive as an odd couple pairing if there ever was one on this night as Widespread Panic’s John Bell joined the sextetfor a stellar rendition of Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine.” As Bell crooned the soulful offering, keyboardist Joel Cummins, set the tone for a session that proved both that Umphrey’s really can have anyone sit in with them and that John Bell can sit in with anybody. The set, though short, allowed the boys to showcase their anything but stagnant musicianship, and though at one point during the set, an apparent Allman loving older gentleman asked me “who are these guys again?” the vast majority of the Civic Center inhabitants not only knew who they were but showed their appreciation through boogie and applause beneath the giant disco ball that hung above.        

The man of the evening made his way to the stage next for an unveiling of Warren Haynes Band. Though others, including George Porter Jr., participated in the creation of a debut album (tentatively set for release in May), on this night the lineup consisted of Ivan Neville on all things with keys and backup vocals, bassist Ron Johnson, Terrance Higgins on drums, tenor saxophonist Ron Holloway, Ruthie Foster on backup vocals, and of course, Warren Haynes on guitar and lead vocals.

Though the group had moments where the execution was a tad rough around the edges, the soulful delivery made this virtually unnoticeable. At one point, Haynes admitted that nearly the entire set list for the evening consisted of songs that were being played for the first time on stage that night. Following the sound checked “Holiday,” the soulful sounds took an even deeper twist when Dirty Dozen Brass Band made their way to the stage for Otis Redding’s “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long.”  The explosiveness of the intertwined organ and brass crescendo that culminated in a build up to Warren’s voice at its country-blues-best made this tune swell with expressive tenderness that surely had the Crown Prince of Soul smiling down upon from above. Though the set was fraught with emotional allocations and tasty soul, one thing that simply did not make sense was that DDBB was not on stage when “Sneaking Sally Through the Alley” was played. To say that it was not an offering that will go down on anyone’s “best of” list is an understatement. I say this with much trepidation, but let’s face it, in a room that is packed with jam band fans, “Sally” has become more of a Phish song than a Robert Palmer song, with the only exception being when it is being played with a pure New Orleans funk ensemble. Though Holloway is one of the best, his brass simply could not provide the fills that were necessary to make it reminiscent of the latter. But knocking Warren Haynes for anything at Christmas Jam is bordering on blasphemy. It is his gig and one thing that the number did offer was familiarity which in turn yielded shaking asses, even if those same asses filed slight complaint in the beer line during the ensuing set change/break.

24.jpgDuring the lengthy and much needed break for both crowd and stage crew, one thing became as plain as day: this was not your average set break mob. There was no pushing, running, shoving or groveling. The fortitude of bountiful charity was in the atmosphere. As I parked my ass in a convenient floor location and devoured a Chick Fil A sandwich, I could not help but notice the smiles that were being exchanged one to another. Members of The Jam populace were not even agitated as they waited to get to the way-to-small designated smoking area or stood in procession to put relish or other fixings on their Oscar Meyer. The scene spoke volumes about how good deeds lead to high spirits. It was as though paying it forward was the game of the day, and it was good.

As fans made their way back to the concert floor, the proverbial “sleeper” took the stage in the form of Steve Miller Band. While one cannot truly assert that SMB was a true sleeper since they were a headliner, in speaking with many attendees later, most had expected a set of straight run-throughs from an aging rocker. No one expected it to “suck,” but primarily attributed this to the fact that Haynes would sit in with Miller and adequately fill any “suck space,” as one attendee coined it. This is absolutely not what we got. While Warren’s contributions made the performance extra tasty, he was just the icing on a cake that would live up to Hoboken’s Carlo’s Bakery standards…even without the creamy and sugary goodness of Haynes’ licks slathered on top.

Playing for over two hours in a time slot that was slated to be half of that, Miller and crew delivered high value improvisation united with soaring oomph in all familiar tunes from “Jet Airliner” to “Abracadabra.”  Miller, stopping many times to engage the crowd, made a deeply grateful speech regarding the community and Warren’s dedication to the Habitat for Humanity cause, commenting that when Haynes called and asked them to come, “it was like having a guy who is working really hard and doing a great job say ‘hey brother, can you help me?’ and we were honored.” With that and a dedication and invitation for Warren to rejoin them on stage, the finale and highlight, “Fly Like an Eagle,” was begun in all of its trippy wonderment. The awe-ridden and shocked stupid “what’s going on here, eh?” looks on people’s mugs throughout the number told the story. It was as though many were on the edge of trance seeping, but their egos loudly replied to the urge, “you are really about to lose yourself to Steve Miller?” At one point, I journeyed from one side of the venue to the other (no small feat) to be sure that there was not another ivory tickler on hand. Sure enough, there was not. It was some shit straight out of Ripley’s to the point that I finally told my music-snob ego to STFU and got lost in all that was Steve Miller Band.

28.jpgPanic front man John Bell made his way onto the stage accompanied with two high back red chairs and nothing else. Stripped of all of the bells and whistles that are present with Widespread Panic, Bell was just a man with his guitar or dobro, similar to one that might be seen in a smoke filled tavern. His set served as a true testament to Bell the guitar player, singer, and songwriter. It also proved that JB is not a musician who takes himself overly serious. Opening with a “Christmas Dobro Medley,” it was plain to see that Bell could be versatile both in terms of style of play (slide to fast paced picking) to personality (somber to funny). The short three song acoustic offering included deliberate lyric changes with lines such as secret agents getting bigger becoming old frosty is getting bigger and to the highway where some new cowboys go becoming to the North Pole where many wishes go; both came within the Panic classic “Papa’s Home.”  It was quite the pleasure to see JB with a demeanor that encouraged kinship and breakdown of barriers that have to exist when on a Panic stage. Though the venue was large, the presentation was intimate, warm, and cozy- just what one hopes for in any Christmas performance.

The moment many had been waiting for came as the silver haired Gregory Lenoir Allman and Gregg Allman Band stepped onto the stage to booming applause that yielded to the Allman classic, “Midnight Rider.” Never one to be anything that even resembles a nostalgia act, Allman keeps material fresh by not insisting on being in front. Rather, his presence alone commands the stage, and the musical respect from his peers seems to elevate their level of play. On this night the set would consist of a barrage of performers joining in throughout Allman originals such as “Melissa” and a beautifully soul infused cover of Bob Dylan’s “Just Like a Woman” led by John Bell on vocals.

30.jpgAs a closer, Dirty Dozen Brass Band, who had been on stage at least a dozen times throughout the evening, brought Bourbon Street to Asheville, NC. Opening with “Ain’t Nothing but a Party,” the playful spirit of DDBB proved to be the perfect way to close Christmas Jam. Blistering through age old classics like “That’s What Love Will Make You Do” and “Superstitious,” the band added additional funky elements by bringing out virtually every performer from the evening, and in turn pulled them into their party fold. lasted Even John Bell could not help but shake a groove during the extensive jams that were interspersed between his lyrical duties on “Superstitious.” Smiles were as abound on the stage as they were in the still packed Civic Center crowd as the six song set lasted nearly an hour and a half. It was improvisational grandness and followed by a “thank you” from Haynes, the perfect way to send the crowd away and out into the now snowy Asheville night.

There are so many incredible music events in this day and age. Most are founded on a principle which is great. However, Christmas Jam was founded on a principle that was and is followed by action in turn. From its inception it has been pure and it is this level of purity that has shaped a vibe in an event that is all too rare. The spirit of brotherhood was obviously beheld in the soul of everyone that called the Asheville Civic Center home on 12/11/10, as all kept in mind those that do not have homes.  It takes a village to do many things in this world that often overlooks what it would rather not see. On this night, the villagers were not only participants in a large scale party, but also in a humanitarian effort that is larger than any concert. The energy was focused and it was thick. Christmas Jam was magical.   

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Set Lists:

MISSING CATS
Smiling Assassin, The Slaughter, Step On Over Me, Highwire, Over Lubbuck

UMPHREYS MCGEE
Conduit, 1348, Ain’t No Sunshine (w/ John Bell), Miss Tinkles Overture, All In Time

WARREN HAYNES BAND (Warren Haynes, Ivan Neville, Ron Johnson, Terrance Higgins, Ron Holloway & Ruthie Foster)
Man In Motion, Rivers Gonna Rise (w/ Umphrey’s Andy Farag & The Dirty Dozen Brass Band), Everyday Will Be Like A Holiday
I’ve Been Loving You Too Long (w/ The Dirty Dozen Brass Band), Sneakin’ Sally Through The Alley, Sick Of My Shadow (w/ Umphrey’s Andy Farag & The Dirty Dozen Brass Band)

STEVE MILLER BAND
Jet Airliner, Take The Money, Mercury Blues, Further Up On The Road (w/ Warren Haynes), Just Got Back From Texas, Ooo Poo Pah Do (w/ Carlos Reyes on Harp), Shubada (w/ Carlos Reyes on Harp), Nature Boy (w/ Carlos Reyes on Harp), Wild Mountain Honey (w/ Carlos Reyes on Harp), Dance Dance Dance (w/ Carlos Reyes on Harp), The Stake, Abracadabra, Livin In The USA, Fly Like An Eagle (w/ Warren Haynes & w/ Carlos Reyes on Harp)

JOHN BELL
Dobro Christmas Medley, Papa’s Home, May Your Glass Be Filled

42.jpgGREGG ALLMAN BAND
Midnight Rider, Just Another Rider> (w/ Dirty Dozen Band Horns & Ron Holloway), Dreams (w/ Ron Holloway), Just Like A Woman (w/ John Bell), Walk on Guilded Splinters (w/ Dirty Dozen Band Horns & John Bell), Melissa, Lost Highway (w/ Steve Miller)

DIRTY DOZEN BRASS BAND
Ain’t Nothing But a Party >Papa Was A Rolling Stone (w/ Warren Haynes), That’s What Love Will Make You Do (w/ Ron Johnson & Warren Haynes), Spanish Moon (w/ Warren Haynes, Ron Johnson, Ivan Neville & Artimus Pyle), Superstitious (w/ John Bell, Ron Holloway), Use Me (w/ Warren Haynes, John Bell & Ron Holloway)

Download Audience Recordings from Christmas Jam

Missing Cats: HERE

Umphrey’s McGee: HERE

Warren Haynes Band: HERE

Steve Miller Band: HERE

John Bell: HERE  

Dirty Dozen Brass Band: HERE

Click the thumbnail(s) to view David Shehi’s photos from the 22nd Annual Christmas Jam

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