Christmas Jam | 12.12.09 | Asheville

Words by: Fred Mills | Images by: Willa Stein

Warren Haynes Presents: The 21st Annual Christmas Jam :: 12.12.09 :: Asheville Civic Center :: Asheville NC

Lineup
Gov't Mule, Counting Crows, Ani DiFranco, moe., George Porter Jr., Eric Krasno, Nigel Hall and Adam Deitch with William Bell.

With Special Guests
Brad Whitford (Aerosmith), Troy "Trombone Shorty" Andrews, Craig Sorrells, Jeff Austin, Mike Barnes, DJ Logic, Jackie Greene, Col. Bruce Hampton, Jimmy Herring, Ed Roland and Kevn Kinney, plus The Xmas Jam Band featuring Fred Eltringham, Audley Freed, Ron Holloway and Robert Kearns.

Warren Haynes :: 12.12 :: Xmas Jam
Somewhere, tucked away in one of this reporter's pocket notebooks for the annual Warren Haynes Christmas Jam - there are eight such notebooks, as I've been attending since the 14th Jam in 2002 - is a quote overheard from an audience member that went thusly:

"Man, this is like Bonnaroo, but without the mud and mosquitoes."

For those unfamiliar with the Haynes Jam, that's a fair summation of the operative aesthetic, to which I'll add that, as an annual benefit for the Asheville area chapter of Habitat For Humanity (and, since Hurricane Katrina, for the Musicians Village in New Orleans), it's also a deeply civic-minded aesthetic that many in the jam band community and beyond have taken to heart and emulated. I've seen Warren Haynes receive the keys to city at the Jam; I've seen him stand next to the mayor while the civic leader decreed an official Warren Haynes Day; and I've seen him out at Warren Haynes Drive in West Asheville at the site of several Habitat houses built with money raised at the Jam, clearly welling up with emotion as he's being thanked by grateful new residents. This year prodigal son Haynes even got into town early enough to help raise a wall, along with about 30 volunteers, of the latest Habitat house.

But back to the mud and mosquitoes, or rather the lack thereof.

It's safe to say that nothing could top the 2008 Jam — for the 20th anniversary of the event the Haynes organization mounted a two-night blowout (three, if you count the Pre-Jam, which has also become an annual tradition) featuring everyone from the Allmans, Derek Trucks Band, the Del McCoury Band and Coheed & Cambria to Steve Earle, Joan Osborne, Johnny Winter and John Paul Jones - and Haynes wisely didn't try (see JamBase coverage of 2008 Jam here). Instead, he simply assembled a show that, in its artistic diversity and musical eclecticism, might bear the sort of eye- and ear-opening collaborative fruit for which the Jam is known. That it did, in spades.

Unlike previous years, the 2009 installment reportedly didn't sell out. Despite some grumblings that this year's lineup was among the weakest in recent years, however, I suspect it was due less to the roster and more attributable to (a) the sour economy, which may have not only prevented some fans from taking the plunge but some artists as well, who would otherwise have committed to play (since the Jam is a fundraiser, musicians perform gratis); and (b) the temporal proximity of a number of other high-profile Asheville concerts, including a highly publicized New Year's Eve show by The Avett Brothers. Regardless, a good time was had by all, and given that a nice check was presented to Habitat, it was all gravy.

Pre-Jam

Jeff Austin :: 12.12 :: Xmas Jam
The main course was preceded by the appetizer: the Pre-Jam, held Friday night, December 11, at the Orange Peel, current capacity about 950. With local community radio station WNCW-FM airing and webcasting the show live, Haynes got things moving at precisely 6 p.m., in front of assorted contest winners, VIP ticket holders and invite-only patrons, with a striking acoustic version of Elton John's "Madman Across the Water." After a second solo number and a brief interview with the WNCW deejay emceeing the show, Haynes gave the stage over to this year's designated wild card, Chicago's Cornmeal, recipients at the 2008 Jammys of the New Groove of the Year award. Each year for the Pre-Jam Haynes typically taps an up-and-comer not specifically booked for the Jam proper to help get the early evening event moving (for example, Outformation, Dead Confederate and the Larry McCray Band performed at the '06, '07 and '08 Pre-Jams, respectively). While his choices are invariably astute, Cornmeal surpassed all expectations and proved one of the Pre-Jam's unmediated highlights. The group's hi-nrg nü-grass, powered by a no-shrinking-violet of a drummer and powered in particular by Allie Kral's demonic fiddling, sent a palpable bolt of electricity through the crowd. For those with long memories, '70s festival images of the legendary Goose Creek Symphony flickered in the mind.

Cornmeal's allotted three-song set was bolstered by the inclusion of Yonder Mountain String Band mandolinist Jeff Austin, notably on "River Gap," which brought the house down when the musicians traded off rapid-fire licks. Kral, bowing her axe with the ferocity of a punk rocker but the dexterity of a classical virtuoso, helped earn the group a fourth song, which continued in that rave-up vein and left the crowd hooting and stomping its appreciation.

Freed & Greene :: 12.12 :: Xmas Jam
The tone for the Pre-Jam duly set, the evening proceeded to shift into a high gear that rarely, if ever, let up. The aptly-named Xmas Jam Band is a new tradition Haynes decided to formally institute to provide a stable backing ensemble for featured guests at the Jam who don't bring their own groups with them. This year it featured erstwhile Black Crowes guitarist Audley Freed, Wallflowers drummer Fred Eltringham, current Lynyrd Skynyrd bassist Robert Kearns (who previously was in the Bottle Rockets and, before that, Cry Of Love with Freed), and venerable sax man and Jam mainstay Ron Holloway, plus Kevn Kinney as de facto ringmaster and vocalist. When he's not fronting the revived Drivin' n' Cryin', Kinney's got a nice little traveling troubadour thing going for him, and on Christmas Jam weekend he also hosts an acoustic songwriter showcase at the Jack of the Wood club, part of several "Jam By Day" events going on in downtown Asheville in synch with the Jam. Kinney's deliberately Dylan-styled take on the Stones' "Jumpin' Jack Flash" for the Pre-Jam raised some eyebrows and prompted some smiles. Those smiles turned to broad grins after Jackie Greene came out to sing The Beatles' "Taxman" with Kinney, and when the Xmas Jam Band launched into CSNY's "Ohio" those broad grins turned into a mass sing-along. Rumors had been circulating in the weeks leading up to this weekend that Neil Young might be a surprise guest at the Jam, and though those rumors ultimately were unfounded, Greene and Freed managed to pull off a rousing approximation of a Stephen Stills-Neil Young guitar duel.

Which of course gets directly at that Bonnaroo musical aesthetic suggested above - disparate artists checking their egos at the loading dock, plugging in, turning on, and having a whale of a good time making music together.

More Pre-Jam Highlights

    George Porter Jr. :: 12.12 :: Xmas Jam
  • George Porter, Jr., Adam Deitch, Eric Krasno, Ron Holloway, Trombone Shorty and Craig Sorrells - a/k/a the designated funk/soul ensemble of the 2009 Haynes Jam (with Nigel Hall joining the following night) - doing a long, interweaving jam based on The Meters' "Look-Ka Py Py" followed not long after by Stax Records soul legend William Bell joining them to sing his '60s hit "Everybody Loves A Winner." Here, every set of eyes in the Orange Peel was on the stage, faces displaying rapt appreciation. A number of those faces would later be coming up to Bell, who spent much of the remainder of the evening out on the main floor, taking in the show and receiving fans' expressions of appreciation.

  • Ani DiFranco teaming up with Haynes for a spirited "Which Side Are You On?" (the old Pete Seeger-identified union-organizing tune; back in May Haynes and DiFranco had both been guests at Pete Seeger's 90th Birthday Bash at Madison Square Garden). Then, she was joined by Jeff Austin plus the funk/soul ensemble for an all-horns-blazing take on her own "Overlap;" to see this relatively tiny young woman flanked by all these not-exactly-tiny males, all looking at her for cues while she's got a pinch-me look of pure pleasure on her face, was quite a thing to behold. Apparently it was too much pleasure for one male fan, who tried to climb onstage and reach her during DiFranco's segment. He was subsequently collared by venue security and ejected.
  • Al Schnier - moe. :: 12.12 :: Xmas Jam
  • Counting Crows doing "Friend of the Devil," prompting another audience sing-along. By way of intro, vocalist Adam Duritz talked about how the band had come to Asheville not being completely sure about how they would approach their Friday and Saturday night sets, and that watching how the Pre-Jam had been unfolding thus far - during a couple of the earlier sets Duritz had slipped out from the wings to sit on the side of the stage so he could get a good look at what was going on - made them realize that doing only their own material wouldn't be in keeping with the spirit of the Jam. Acknowledging that he has a (not-undeserved) reputation for being a bit of a diva, Duritz added a comment to the effect that tonight he just wanted to come off as a regular guy. The Dead cover, followed by a ragged-but-right, raucously-delivered "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere," featuring Haynes guesting, more or less made good on that pledge, and while the Crows also did several of their typically extemporaneous originals (notable was "Rain King," which cleverly interpolated bits of Springsteen's "Thunder Road"), Duritz's stab at humility was admirable.
  • moe. just being moe.! It's been some time since the boys of moe. displayed their estimable chops at one of Haynes' gatherings in Asheville - I'll always remember the looks of delight on their faces when Bob Weir came out to play with them during their set at the 2002 Jam - so the Orange Peel crowd was clearly jazzed to see them. When Gov't Mule keyboardist Danny Louis and Asheville guitarist Mike Barnes joined them for a marathon version of "Opium" it was like being sucked into a psychedelic vortex beyond the constraints of time and space. Jeff Austin and Allie Kral toted mandolin and fiddle out for a "32 Things" finale, and had that been the last collision of notes uttered, nobody would have complained. Still...
  • Jorgen Carlsson - Gov't Mule :: 12.12 :: Xmas Jam
  • There was the Mule yet to come, which happened sometime around half-past midnight, and while at 55 minutes the set was roughly a third of what a typical Gov't Mule show lasts, those 55 minutes were, as the saying goes, some very good minutes. Four of the best numbers from the recent By A Thread were present and accounted for: "Railroad Boy," "Monday Mourning Breakdown," a downright brutal "Inside Outside Woman Blues #3," and "Broke Down on the Brazos" - the latter serving as a blazing, thundering, bawling encore and concert-closer. As always, though, the cover-tune collaborations were what unmoored the Orange Peel rafters and ceiling: Albert King's "Feel Like Breaking Up Somebody's Home," with Ron Holloway on sax and Brad Whitford on guitar; Cream's "Politician," with Fred Eltringham coming out in addition to Holloway and Whitford; and while hopes for Whitford to showcase an Aerosmith nugget were dashed when the guitarist left the stage, Jackie Greene soon came out for the evening's second Neil Young-referencing classic, "Southern Man," and if you squinted just right while listening to Haynes and Green navigate their solos, you just might have gotten visions of Crazy Horse dancing in your head like St. Nick's sugarplums.

Yeah, they got that part right.

More Pre-Jam Thoughts

Now, while this is supposed to be a review of the actual Jam on Saturday night, there's a point to the foregoing. Despite the fact that the Pre-Jam's tenure isn't as long-running at the Jam itself - the 2009 Pre-Jam was the 11th overall, with WNCW broadcasting each time out; this year's installment will be re-broadcast on New Year's Eve here - it's long been viewed as a microcosm and foreshadowing of the main event, with many of the artists billed for the Jam making an appearance the night before and on frequent occasions test-driving (and in some instances, eventually discarding) material to see if it works within the larger Jam context.

Haynes, Holloway, Whitford, Carlsson
12.12 :: Xmas Jam
What's often overlooked, however, is the way the Pre-Jam sets the stage, figuratively speaking, for the Jam. On one, very key, level, since some of the musicians have never met face to face it serves as a vehicle for personal introductions, and as Haynes told me in an interview a few years ago, he realized early on that it also provides a means by which those artists unfamiliar with one another or their respective musics could ease into the collaborations in a smaller setting and on relatively low-key terms - covers could be mutually agreed upon, setlists could be finessed, showcase moments brainstormed, etc., all away from the glare of the arena lights and the inevitably hectic bustle of the Jam.

More important, though, is how the Pre-Jam, through the aforementioned intimacy of the club setting and other less definable ways, helps cultivates that "spirit of the Jam" mentioned above. You get into town, stow your gear at the club, go check in at the hotel and relax (well, in the case of moe. this year, not so much; their arrival in Asheville got delayed due to weather, so while they were racing to get to the Orange Peel, Counting Crows, originally slated for the next-to-last slot, were subbing for them). Then, you head back to the club, hang out backstage and downstairs at the buffet dinner, and greet old friends while making new ones, and start thinking about what would be fun to play tonight and with whom. Next morning, you get up, go wander around Asheville - a beautiful, resourcefully bohemian, mountain town - bump into other musicians, maybe drop in to play a couple of songs at one of the Jam By Day club happenings, and finally start prepping for the Saturday night show.

"To a man - and woman - all the artists have told me how relaxed they feel and how friendly everyone is during Jam weekend," Haynes offered in our interview, adding that the fact that they are doing the Jam for no compensation, some of them such as Freed, Kinney, Holloway and Col. Bruce Hampton returning year after year, speaks volumes for the overall vibe of community and camaraderie among the musicians. Like Bonnaroo, but minus mud 'n' mosquitoes.

Complete Pre-Jam setlist available here.

Continue reading for coverage of the 21st Annual Christmas Jam...


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