It was cold in Asheville, North Carolina, but the forecast promised a smoking hot show.
Yep, it’s Christmas Jam time again.
The folks streamed into Asheville Civic Center on December 12 to see Warren Haynes and all his friends. This was the 20th year that Haynes has put on his charity benefit and the first time it has been extended to two days, and several afternoon shows were scheduled at local music venues for those who needed more than Warren planned to offer.
The audience was treated to Gov’t Mule and their new bassist, Jorgen Carlsson, who replaced Andy Hess. Carlsson brings a different style to the table, a little less jazz and a lot more hard-hitting rock. The set wrapped up with "Fallen Down," and in the midst of it the band hit two distinct notes. The arena knew what the band was breaking into, a tune that would become a fantastic version of the Grateful Dead’s "The Other One," augmented by Karl Denson, who had jumped in to help on sax.
Next was Ivan Neville’s Dumpstaphunk, and their two bass funk…and funky is was. The crowd was not as enthused until the band broke into Sly and the Family Stone’s, "Thank You Falletime Be Mice Elf" with the help of Tal Wilkenfeld, Eric Krasno, and Haynes.
With a rather drastic change of musical styles, next was the Del McCoury Band. The audience exploded with cheers when Travis Tritt joined the McCourys for "Little Georgia Rose" and "Old Kentucky Shore," the latter of which featured Joan Osbourne on vocals as well. The Lee Boys came out as well, to close the McCoury’s set with "Celebrate."
Joan Osborne‘s fairly short set followed, and she had quite a collection of musicians backing her, notably, Audley Freed on guitar and Gov’t Mule’s Danny Louis on keys. Travis Tritt followed and Audley Freed held down guitar with him as well, moving from rock to country to blues with ease.
While the music all night was stellar, the Christmas Jam really is more than that – it’s as much about getting to see musicians who don’t know each other, or have very little contact during the year, get the chance to play together for just one night.
Buddy Cage, who played on Bob Dylan’s Blood On The Tracks and still tours with New Riders of the Purple Sage, is perhaps the best pedal steel guitarist alive and for many of the bands of the night, he sat off to the side and added fabulous fills to the tunes.
John Paul Jones, he of Led Zeppelin mega-fame, displayed a softer side and brought out the mandolin to accompany several acts, including a duo with Haynes on "Soulshine" and "Going to California." Another surprise was prodigy Tal Wilkenfeld, who has spent time touring with Jeff Beck and just threw down on the bass.
The night ended with The Allman Brothers Band, whose set didn’t start until nearly 2am; they played a great set that culminated in "Mountain Jam," with John Paul Jones jumping in for "Dazed and Confused," which was sandwiched in the middle.
The second night was just as good as the first. The evening opened with Warren Haynes and Ruthie Foster performing a duet on "Grinnin’ In Your Face," and was followed by the Xmas Jam Band, whose core line-up seemed to be Kevn Kinney, Audley Freed, Jen Gunderman, Buddy Cage, and Edwin McCain, but with so many more musicians cycling in and out such as Patterson Hood and Eric Krasno, there were a multitude of configurations throughout the group’s time on stage. A rousing and lengthy version of the Rolling Stones’, "Tumbling Dice" was the highlight of their set.
Next Steve Earle came out and started his set with "Copperhead Road." After a few comments on the differences in the Washington’s political scene since he wrote "Christmas Time In Washington," which he plays the song. The crowd got an inspired version of "Gotta Serve Somebody" from a group of the musicians from the night, and then Johnny Winter was next. After decades of performing, Winter may move a bit slow, but he still has the chops, and got a big cheer from the audience after his set.
Coheed and Cambria was a bit of an unusual choice for the Xmas Jam, their style of music fitting in somewhere between Metal and scream-o. However, what they played, the played excellently. "I Shall Be Released" was most unexpected, and the audience seemed to be both suprised and impressed.
Michael Franti was as upbeat as usual, starting his set on the acoustic guitar. He was accompanied by Jay Bowman, John Paul Jones, Mickey Rapheael, and Robben Ford for his entire set, with Eric Krasno jumping in towards the end.
Ben Harper & Relentless7 and his new band followed and then Gov’t Mule closed the show with a set of cover tunes, the end half of which was all Zeppelin with John Paul Jones. "Livin Lovin’ Maid" being the highlight.
So what makes Xmas Jam so great?
First and foremost, it’s the event’s heart. While the music may be the central theme, you can’t look past the fact that the Christmas Jam is a charity event for Habitat for Humanity, which means everything to the community of Asheville and those who have been recipients of the houses built with the proceeds.
But, what makes the night magical is the the many different styles of music, and the sit-ins and combinations of artists playing together that you may never see again.
The Christmas Jam is music at its purest – improvised, played for the love of playing.
The Christmas Jam is the holiday spirit, wrapped up into two great nights at the Asheville Civic Center.