Warren Haynes at the 23rd Christmas Jam, 2012 (Photo: David Shehi)

Christmas Jam 23: The Formula Changed, but the Tradition Remains

On December 23, 2011, Warren Haynes Christmas Jam, in all its charitable glory, once again descended upon downtown Asheville, North Carolina.

Over the years, the Jam has become predominantly known for its unlikely ensembles and once-in-a-lifetime sit ins.

But upon viewing this year’s lineup, it was immediately obvious that the 23rd installment of the annual institution would hang its hat on beloved ensembles of times past and bands who have recently been on hiatus. On par with previous years, chairman of the Jam, Warren Haynes, rarely left side stage.

In discussing the Christmas Jam, it is always important to recall the event’s history, not only of origin, but of charity.

Christmas Jam was born from a simple idea: old friends who were members of different touring bands got together for an evening at a local club. It was a night of homecoming, camaraderie, and music with friends; the door money was donated to various charities. The event became a resounding success in the local community and as time passed, it grew in the most organic way.

Today, the charitable donations benefit Habitat for Humanity and the Asheville Civic Center (the city’s largest) is the permanent home for the festivities. The event sells out within minutes of going on sale each year, and 2011 was no different.

When it was announced that Phil Lesh & Friends and Gov’t Mule (who have not performed together in 2011) would anchor the line-up, the Warren and Jam faithful gobbled up the available tickets; the pre-sale tickets sold out in record time. In addition to the slated acts — which included scene veterans Los Lobos and banjo god Bela Fleck — the “special guest” list was nothing to scoff at. Notable names included Jimmy Herring, Kevn Kinney, Jeff Sipe, Mike Barnes, Bill Evans, and Audley Freed.

The evening began with Warren taking the stage as he has in years past, with an acoustic guitar and a smile. Opening the evening with Van Morrison’s “And It Stoned Me,” the mood was set as the subtle sounds of Haynes’ familiar voice soothed the gridlocked Civic Center throng, causing a hush and collective eye-shutting to fall over the room. It was a meditative moment that was probably as necessary for Haynes as it was for the fans. After all, everyone knew they were in for close to eight hours of high throttled jams.

 

Christmas Jam Band

Following the collective rumination, Haynes simply smiled as he looked adoringly at the patrons of the event that he holds so near and dear before introducing the first act of the evening, dubbed the “Christmas Jam Band.”

Featuring Kevn Kinney, Jackie Greene, Robert Kearns, Audley Freed and Brad Pemberton, the act opened with the Kinney-sung Drive-By Truckers classic, “Never Gonna Change.” The band amply fulfilled its duties and provided a nice warm-up set of solidly-played familiar tunes that included Elton John’s “Rocket Man” and The Beatles’ “I’ve Got A Feeling.”

 

Setlist: Never Gonna Change, Ain’t Waiting On Tomorrow, Breath > Rocket Man, I’ve Got a Feeling

Download an audience recording of this set here

 

Bela Fleck and Friends

Bela Fleck took the stage following a brief changeover, something that was much appreciated at this year’s Jam. In previous years, the changeovers have been a dreaded time for attendees. With the smaller lineup, a majority of the equipment was backlined. Hence, the only true gear overhaul took place during the scheduled intermission midway through the evening.

Fleck took the same approach as Haynes had nearly an hour earlier, taking the stage accompanied only by his famous Gibson TB-75 Flathead banjo for an improvisational session that segued into the “Ballad of Jed Clampett,” wherein Bela once again affirmed himself as one of the premiere banjoists of the modern era, if not of all time.

As the closing notes of “Clampett” settled and the applause roared, friends — guitarist Jimmy Herring (Widespread Panic), drummer Jeff Sipe (Aquarium Rescue Unit), fiddler Casey Driessen (Sparrow Quartet), bassist Taylor Lee (Jeff Sipe Trio) and saxophonist Bill Evans (Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock) — took the stage for what would be a definitive set of the night, especially in the areas of discovery and musicality.

In 2006, Bill Evans recorded the Grammy-nominated album Soulgrass. It featured numerous artists including Fleck and is the centerpiece of the jazz-bluegrass fusion sound. Though Herring was not featured on the fusion-focused album, one could never tell by simply listening to his perfectly executed play. It was wonderfully evocative of Herring’s Jazz is Dead days or his sessions with Chick Corea. To boot, there was Fleck, who seemed to preside over the ceremonies in a similar fashion to the way Bruce Hampton presides over Aquarium Rescue Unit.

The set, which lasted just over an hour, was nothing short of beautifully integrated harmonious orgasmia. It was far from typical call-and-response jam. It was a group of soloists who have the innate ability to musically intermingle amongst one another, and they executed to perfection. All of this, in conjunction with two of the players (Fleck and Evans) who are — without reservation from any scholar — living legends, made the set one of those “only at Christmas Jam” moments.

 

Setlist:  Improvisation>Ballad Of Jed Clampett (Bela Fleck solo), Monkey See, Spanish Point, Scapegoat Blues#,  Soulgrass
# Neal Fountain on bass

Download an audience recording of this set here

 

Los Lobos

Los Lobos, the band that served as Ritchie Valens’ reincarnate with their rendition of “La Bamba” for the 1987 film, is hands down one of the most underrated, overlooked and unsung group of musical heroes on the scene today.

Though critical acclaim has met them at many turns and the devotion of avid followers runs deep, large commercial success has eluded them. This is perhaps best evidenced by the fact that Warner Brothers dropped the ensemble from their label in 1996 even though the East Los Angeles natives won a Grammy the previous year. These cats have folks like Eric Clapton, Mavis Staples and Elvis Costello on speed dial, but the response from the average music listener when Los Lobos is discussed is “who?”

In short, they were a perfect fit for Christmas Jam, an event whose lineup is curated by one of the most discerning ears in music, Haynes.

Opening with the title track from 1990’s The Neighborhood, the crowd was getting warmed up to the sound before subsequently being set afire by the electrifying solo from front man David Hidalgo that brought the number to a close. The segue-heavy set reeled through theyears of the veteran Hispanic rockers’ vast career.

Following the percussive heavy and intensely danceable “I Walk Alone,” a true standout from the band’s Live at Fillmore release, the band welcomed Haynes to the stage for a short ripping of a Grateful Dead-inspired rendition of “Not Fade Away.”

During “NFA,” Jackie Greene walked to the stage for the final number of the evening, a seamlessly segued “Bertha,” the Los Lobos contribution to the Grateful Dead tribute album, Deadicated.  The 10-minute tune was interplay at its finest, as the five guitarists called and responded to each other with precision. Finally settling into a rhythmic backdrop, Haynes took center stage  and prevailed above his peers with a spine chilling slide solo that eventually channeled Duane Allman through a tease of the Allman Brothers’ “Ramblin’Man.”

Never minding the obvious, in so many ways the closer was the perfect introduction to what was about to unfold.

 

Setlist: The Neighborhood > Don’t Worry Baby > Revolution > Rattlesnake Shake > Chuco’s Cumbia, La Venganza De Los Pelados, I Walk Alone, Not Fade Away* > Bertha#
* – with Warren Haynes
# – with Warren and Jackie Greene

Download an audience recording of this set here

 

Intermission

As fans took their first break from the music, hotdogs were eaten, merch was purchased, babysitters were called, bladders were emptied, and all other standard-fare set break/intermission activities were tended to. However, one thing separated the experience from most other events of Christmas Jam’s size: the attitude and graciousness from one fan to the next. It was this, coupled with the always unique musical experience that Christmas Jam provides, that sets it apart and dare I say, above.

The camaraderie of fans who were enduring an extended show was, as it always is, remarkable. It proved that when good deeds and charitable acts are in the air, self-centeredness actually takes a back seat. It was a beautiful thing to watch and joyous to take part in.

 

Phil Lesh and Friends: Warren Haynes, Jackie Greene, Joe Russo and Jeff Chimenti

From the moment that Phil Lesh and Friends were announced for this installment of Christmas Jam, the buzz was high. On the night itself, expectations were even higher as many have longed for a trip back to the days of a Lesh-led band as opposed to what is currently going on with Furthur.

This outing by the less-than-well-rehearsed ensemble (that also featured Jimmy Herring for the majority of the set) not only exceeded the high expectations, but proved that Bill Kreutzmann had a valid point when he stated that Furthur probably should have asked Haynes to join their act.

The set was Phil back where he is supposed to be: in his element as a bandleader, in spite of the fact that he occasionally passed his duties off to the very able hands of Jackie Greene. It was the beauty of Phil’s voice again; an ingredient that Furthur simply seems to not have appreciation for.

Most of all though, it was Phil’s Zone and for Phil fans, it can only be hoped that Lesh, who sported a perma-grin for the majority of the evening, will get this band on the road in the very near future.

Rather than drone on and on about the perfection with which songs were played (minus a miscue or missed change here or there), what was most noteworthy about the evening was witnessing how much Greene has grown as a player since the days when most got to know him as the kid who looked like a young Bob Dylan.

Herring was present for the majority of the set, so between he and Haynes, one would suspect that Greene’s guitar work would take a back seat, but it was far from the case. Sure, Haynes and Herring are more mature players and have abilities that are uniquely their own, but “the kid” held his own, and at times visibly challenged the elder statesmen to duels.

Highlighted by a trance-inducing “Dark Star” and space-filled “Wharf Rat,” the stage never seemed crowded; the sound was anything but cluttered and the present talent seemed to further heighten Jeff Chimenti’s confidence on keys. The set was one of those where the line between musical enjoyment and spiritual experience is crossed pretty quickly. It was a great night to be in Asheville.

 

Setlist: Shakedown Street > Deal > Viola Lee Blues > Caution > Viola Lee Blues > China Cat Sunflower > I Know You Rider, Dark Star > She Said She Said > Jam > Dark Star* > Wharf Rat* > The Other One* > Sugaree*, Donor Rap
Encore: Angel Band
*with Jimmy Herring

Download an audience recording of this set here

 

Gov’t Mule

The moment that many had been waiting for arrived when the beloved quartet of Gov’t Mule ambled onto their platform before a legion of some of their most loyal. Though it has been less than a year since Mule’s last performance, for fans who are used to the band’s regular touring schedule, this one year with front man Haynes out in support of the Man in Motion has felt like five.

To resounding applause and subsequent choral accompaniment from the crowd, Mule launched into “Railroad Boy” in a manner that suggested that while the band had been off the road, they wouldn’t miss a beat. By the time that bassist Jorgen Carlsson trickled in, drummer Matt Abts began the call-to-arms beat of the number and Danny Louis began his organ swirl, the temperature in the venue had already gone up a few degrees.

Phil Lesh took over bass and Bill Evans sat in for a cover of Traffic’s “Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys,” which began with a degree of awkwardness that possibly could be attributed to the band’s seeming unfamiliarity with the number. At the time and even in hindsight, it probably wasn’t the best song choice, but by the time that the second bridge ended and the improvisation between Haynes and Evans ensued, Lesh had  delight written all over his face. It was the highlight of the entire night.

After another Haynes and Jimmy Herring face-melting series of solos during The Beatles’ “Dear Prudence” and a solidly-played Mule original, “Inside Outside Woman Blues #3,” the evening closed with the appropriate cover of The Doors’ “When the Music’s Over.” Followed by a simple “thank you and merry Christmas” from Haynes, the music was indeed over… but the memories will never leave.

 

Setlist: Railroad Boy > Beautifully Broken > Thorazine Shuffle, Banks Of The Deep End, Low Spark Of High-Heeled Boys*#, Dear Prudence@, Inside Outside Woman Blues, When The Music’s Over

* With Phil Lesh on Bass
# With Bill Evans on Saxophone
@ With Jimmy Herring on Guitar

Download an audience recording of this set here

 

Closing notes…

With that, the 23rd Annual Warren Haynes Christmas Jam was in the books. In some ways, it broke from tradition, but one tradition was held onto as steadfastly as it ever has been: music and goodwill are always a blend worth pursuing. In times that have brought about much uncertainty for many families across our beautiful country, Christmas Jam remains a beacon of light that is spiritually refreshing and authentic. Of course, the music was badass as well.

 

Click the thumbnail(s) to view photos from the Jam by David Shehi

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