Review & Photos | Warren Haynes Christmas Jam | Asheville

Images By: Ian Rawn
Words By: Zachary Cohen

Warren Haynes Christmas Jam :: 12.13.13 - 12.14.13 :: U.S. Cellular Center :: Asheville, NC

Warren Haynes looms large in Asheville. And it's not just his out-sized presence that makes an impression. It’s his warmth, his sense of community, the care he has for this place, his home, which comes across in every conversation in which his name comes up. Warren loves Asheville, and Asheville loves Warren, which is why, for 25 years now, he’s hosted the Christmas Jam in the town where he was born to benefit the local chapter of Habitat for Humanity.

It’s the perfect way to celebrate the holidays up here in the mountains, in this small slice of heaven, just as the Blue Ridge Mountains carpeted the town with a sullen, wet Weekend Fog. The musicians here are happy, and they are everywhere - in the clubs, studios, record and music shops that dot the town. On the street corners they busk, two at a time; Friday evening, a fiddler and a guitarist held down the busy corner of Haywood and Flint greeting locals and out of town revelers alike with bluegrass-tinged ditties, as they made the short walk to Asheville’s U.S. Cellular Center.

Inside they found a bustling venue, thick with smoke in the way only municipal auditoriums can, filling up fast with the warm bodies of Southern souls, thousands of whom had poured into town for the annual event. Inside, the beer lines moved quickly as workers poured cold, local beers with names like Highwire, Wicked Weed and Wedge.

The famed California brewery Sierra Nevada recently announced plans to open a brewery in nearby Mills River, NC, and to celebrate, they worked alongside the Asheville Brewing Co. to create a special Christmas Jam Session Ale; On tap throughout the event. And it was in this spirit of collaboration, of celebrating the creative oasis that is Asheville, that the weekend operated under.

It had the feel of a Hootenanny actually. At first the looseness came off as unprofessional; Things were casual on stage, and off. At times, the stage would fill past capacity as musicians sat in on another’s sets. But as the weekend wore on and as over fourteen hours of music was produced, one was reminded that this is just how they do things down here. It’s not unprofessional, it’s their aim. The moonshine here is strong, but it also has something too often absent from these affairs, a purity, a sense of itself.

Warren acted as MC throughout, appearing briefly on the enormous stage to introduce each act while he thanked the crowd, earnestly and forthrightly for their continued support. Warren was so humble that he hardly stayed onstage long enough to hear the applause. And he played with almost every artist this weekend including the three bands he is already a member of: The Phil Lesh Quintet, Gov’t Mule and Sco- Mule, while sitting in with everyone from O.A.R to Aquarium Rescue Unit to Michael Franti and performed with Allman Brothers Band mate Gregg Allman.

The man was everywhere, and to watch him striding elegantly around the venue’s artist areas with his thick, ringletted mane of hair trailing behind him, laying atop his black blazer, shaking hands, stopping to chat with friends new and old, was to watch a fully mature artist, universally loved, in a town whose recent culture and economic success owe a great deal to him. In many ways, Warren Haynes has built modern Asheville. He embodies the place, entirely.

John Scofield’s Uberjam on Friday smoked from the get go, as the legendary guitarist greeted the still-gathering crowd with Byzantine blues riffs that bounced between the steel trap rhythm section of bassist Andy Hess and drummer Louis Kato. Guitarist Avi Bortnick kept up just fine.

After a languorous interlude, Gregg Allman and Warren took the stage for an acoustic set that was plagued by recurring guitar issues. Warren, the consummate professional, played through it, singing alongside his longtime partner as a guitar tech fiddled on stage. The crowd, a good deal of which was drawn by Widespread Panic, who were slated to close the show with a 2:30 a.m. start time, began to grow listless. But Warren and Gregg toughed it out and by the time they closed with a heart wrenching “Melissa” the energy in the Asheville Civic Center was primed.

The highlight of the evening was undoubtedly Phil Lesh’s Quintet. Mirroring the looseness of the evening and indeed the whole weekend, Phil, Warren, Jimmy Herring, Rob Barraco and John Molo opened their set with a free-form jam, enabling the musicians to adjust to the room before cohering around “Celebration.” Phil Lesh remains a marvel to watch; dexterous and energetic, the man has grown increasingly comfortable with his place at the top of the game in the jamming world.

The first real offering of the set came with the musical movement of “Playing in the Band > China Cat Sunflower > I Know You Rider.” Warren and Jimmy traded licks from across the stage, the twin columns to Phil’s artful edifice. “Mountains of the Moon,” a rarity, anchored the middle of the set and saw a long and winding yet pretty jam as Phil intoned “Lost is the long and loneliest town, fairly simply flying,” which might as well be about Asheville, at least before Warren arrived. And then a surprise as the band launched into “St. Stephen,” bringing the crowd to its first frenzy of the evening. Seguing beautifully into “The Other One” before heading into a soft ambient space highlighted by Jimmy Herring’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” intimation, Phil and his Quintet were quickly stealing the show. Back into “The Other One,” they brought the show full stop before closing with a gorgeous, measured take on “Terrapin Station.” Phil brought his A game. He always seems to these days.

It wasn’t long before Widespread Panic took the stage, giving the crowd what they really wanted. This is the South after all and Widespread remains, these many years later, the sine qua non of jambands below the Mason-Dixon. Jimmy Herring and lead singer/guitarist John Bell held things down superbly as bassist Dave Schools, an extra kick in his step, stomped around his rig to rev up the noticeably taxed crowd. The highlight of Widespread’s set was undoubtedly the “Surprise Valley > Ride Me High > Drums > Surprise Valley” segment with Randall Bramblett of Traffic sitting in. The crowd began to thin soon after, considering it was past 3 a.m. and eight hours of music lay behind them.

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