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...

21st Annual Christmas Jam

Herring, Greene & Carlsson :: 12.12 :: Xmas Jam
That Civic Center stage is indeed big, but as the 2009 Jam confirmed, the vibe Haynes mentions continues to prevail. Following a surprise opening deejay set from DJ Logic, spinning pretty much everything under the sun, Haynes along with Greene and Austin kicked off the festivities at 7 p.m. with an elegiac version of the Stones' "Wild Horses." Eight hours later - eight hours later; for those of you reaching for your calculators I'll do the math and point out that makes it 3 a.m. - Gov't Mule was onstage and barely halfway through its set. As these things tend to happen, I think I lost track of time around the point when Greene, Jimmy Herring and Haynes were rolling through Garcia's "Sugaree." I only have vague memories of Brad Whitford whipping the Mule and Friends into an Aerosmith-like frenzy for "Train Kept A-Rollin'." But by that point, the train had been rollin' for a good while, and much like the night before at the Pre-Jam, the highlights were legion.

Reviewers, and I suspect fans, too, sometimes make the mistake of comparing Haynes Christmas Jams, trying to determine if this one was better than that one; which so-called "memorable performance" was truly the "most" memorable; and whether or not any given artist measured up to some amorphous standard of Jam-ness. This is understandable, but it's an intellectual cul-de-sac because you're using your own personal musical likes and dislikes for a yardstick.

Holloway, Whitford, Duritz, Austin :: 12.12 :: Xmas Jam
It also misses the whole damn point. The Christmas Jam isn't a contest from which winners will be selected to be enshrined in the Hall Of Haynes - though the forest of tapers' mic stands that juts skyward from the Civic Center floor in the vicinity of the soundboard does indicate that the performances themselves will be enshrined in some manner of speaking. Pride of Show '09 goes to the taper who was utilizing the multi-colored, glowing-neon cables. It wasn't the tallest, most demonstrably phallic, mic stand in the venue, but definitely the most visually appealing. Festive, even, with a nice feminine touch. In keeping with the holiday spirit, a lot of Santa hats, reindeer ears, and LED-festooned headgear were on display throughout the audience.

With that in mind, some of the moments from the 2009 Jam I'd willingly pawn my wife, kid, house and motorhome to experience again (just kiddin' about that last one - the RV stays in the driveway) are as follow, not necessarily chronologically, as the performance order of the Jam was the same as Pre-Jam - with the exception of moe. and Counting Crows - though considerably more fleshed out, and with additional guests:

    Matt Abts - Gov't Mule :: 12.12 :: Xmas Jam
  • Gov't Mule, "Broke Down on the Brazos": even brawnier than the night previous, this is prime Mule on record, but onstage it's got a kind of transcend-the-generations appeal, equal parts kick-out-the-jams punk sneer and the '70s blooze-rock edginess that is one of Haynes' trademarks. After seeing it done live, I'm convinced that it would go over like gangbusters with the Guitar Hero crowd - and maybe even prod some aspiring axe hero to go out and buy a real guitar and amp to bypass the digital avatar route altogether.
  • Ani DiFranco, "Untouchable Face" and "Overlap": The former, one of her sauciest, sassiest and most-loved compositions, literally had folks in the crowd shouting at the tops of their lungs, "Fuck you!" when she got to the tagline. The latter, as on Friday night (also held over was her duet with Haynes on "Which Side Are You On?"), was a show-stopper par excellence, particularly since this time the funk/soul men were familiar with the changes and could anticipate where DiFranco was taking the tune. Extra points for Trombone Shorty, who summoned up the sweetest-yet-stankiest trombone solo I've heard since that time in high school when my 'bone-playing friend Johnny Wright dosed me prior to band practice and decided to blat a little impromptu salute over to me, already seeing colors, in the clarinet section. Shorty earned, and got, one of the biggest cheers of the night for that 30-second solo. You just can't buy this shit at Wal-Mart or Target. And you sure can't hear it on Guitar Hero.
  • moe. :: 12.12 :: Xmas Jam
  • moe., "Happy Hour Hero": Each year, downstairs in the Civic Center's hospitality section, the Haynes organization sets up a large-screen television flanked by chairs and sofas so artists, press, family members and invited friends can take little breathers while still taking in the Jam. These concerts are taped for posterity - last year, portions of the 2006 Jam were released on DVD as The Benefit Concert Volume 8 - so a live feed is sent from the control booth down to the TV. So, during moe.'s set, Jimmy Herring wandered onstage, and as the song progressed the downstairs area grew quieter and quieter as people fixed their attention on the screen to watch this subtle display of fretboard pyrotechnics erupt. "Subtle" and "pyrotechnics" don't usually work together in a sentence, but in this instance they formed a compound action verb for Herring, Chuck Garvey and Al Schnier. I've witnessed a lot of interesting and funny scenes backstage at Christmas Jams, but only on a few occasions have I actually seen folks gathered around the TV cheer at the end of a song - testimony, perhaps, to the absolute non-jaded and open-ended nature of the Jam, where every performance is potentially one to tell the grandkids about.
  • Counting Crows, "With A Little Help From My Friends": Adam Duritz, sporting a Beatles t-shirt, did his second Fab Four tribute of the night; earlier in the set the Crows did a somewhat quirky, but serviceable, version of the well-known Abbey Road medley (if you want to see something really fun, Google the terms "Abbey Road," "juggler" and "YouTube"... I digress). "WALHFMF" seemed less calculated, however, and possibly unrehearsed. With Haynes and Jeff Austin guesting on guitar and mandolin, it had an additional spontaneous lilt to it, and Duritz, though still his typical arm-waving/stage-clomping self, sang it with a warmth and a sincerity that sometimes gets lost in the vocal tics and mannerisms. Unexpectedly, and I'm pretty certain spontaneously, too, the Crows (with Haynes still onstage) served up a set-closing version of "This Land Is Your Land" that also rang true. Overall, as one observer mentioned to me, this was the most overtly theatrical or "big arena"-styled set of the '09 Jam, but the audience, well familiar with Crows mainstays such as "Round Here" and "Rain King," didn't seem to mind at all, and the band's concessions to honoring the "spirit of the Jam" were well-taken.
  • Col. Bruce & Porter Jr. :: 12.12 :: Xmas Jam
  • Col. Bruce Hampton, "Spoonful": During the Xmas Jam Band's early evening segment that found them backing up, variously, Kinney, Jackie Greene and Edwin McCain, the mighty Col. Bruce got in a one-song showcase with Haynes, Herring, Duane Trucks and George Porter, Jr. in tow. It would take a mean man indeed to fuck up a Willie Dixon song, although over the years there have no doubt been more than a few mean men to come along (most of them of the Caucasian variety, but that's another discussion entirely). However, Col. Bruce is not a mean man. He is a man who knows the breadth and depth of modern music and is determinedly kind, if occasionally twisted, in his application to it. "Spoonful" was no exception, and with the Triple-H Club of Hampton, Haynes and Herring all riffing manfully through the blues workhorse and Hampton leaning into the mic at the appropriate moments to snarl the tune's timeless lyrics, you could sense the good Mr. Dixon somewhere up there in Heaven, smiling down upon the Civic Center.
  • Jackie Greene, "Isis": If Counting Crows were intent on channeling The Beatles, then the Xmas Jam Band may have had Bob Dylan on the brain, first at the Pre-Jam with Kinney's Dylanized Stones cover and then the next night supporting Greene's extended take of "Isis." Danny Louis provided song salve with his suave B3 stylings while Greene alternately crooned and spit out the bard's lines, and if Greene were not already a much buzzed-about young artist, this incendiary, impassioned performance could've been the one to make him go viral. Here's hoping any YouTube clips that surface of the song also include footage of Haynes unleashing some filthy slide-guit licks.
  • Jam Featuring William Bell :: 12.12 :: Xmas Jam
  • George Porter Jr., Eric Krasno, Adam Deitch, Nigel Hall, "Born Under a Bad Sign" and "Fiyo on the Bayou": All hail Jimmy Herring, who made a pretty good case for him being a long-lost Neville Brother, or at least a cousin once or twice removed. With the funk/soul ensemble and Holloway/Sorrells/Shorty horn section percolating like a steaming hot fresh vat of gumbo, Herring and Krasno took "Fiyo" all the way down to New Orleans and back, stopping off for grits in Muscle Shoals and wings in Memphis for good measure. Indigenous American music just doesn't get much tastier. Meanwhile, earlier in the evening I'd gone downstairs to avail myself of the facilities and while standing there I heard music coming from the other side of the wall, a horn section pumping through what sounded like "Born Under A Bad Sign." Sure enough, when the funk/soul guys were joined by William Bell for the singer's five-song spotlight, after serving up drop-dead cool, honest-to-Stax takes of "Hard to Handle," "Everyday is a Holiday," "You Don't Miss Your Water" and "Everybody Loves a Winner" they launched into "BUABS," the classic song Bell wrote that was made famous by everyone from Albert King to Cream. Here, with the horn section plus Haynes, Freed and Whitford all pitching in, it was like seeing one of those end-of-night superstar jams at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremonies. Viewing it from the rear of the arena revealed what appeared to be the entire floor in motion, with a good percentage of the balcony standing up and dancing, too. William Bell is a true national treasure, from his tunesmith prowess to his versatility as singer to his infectious, I'm-here-to-make-y'all-feel-good-tonight stage charisma, and his presence among this year's Jam roster, backed by the likes of bassist Porter and guitarist Krasno, will long be remembered as one of Haynes' most inspired selections.

Will reviewers and fans debate, as they are prone to do, those selections at next year's Christmas Jam, and the one after that, and the one after that? Of course they will. But if they're smart, they'll keep coming back for more. I've returned to the Christmas Jam seven times since my first one in 2002 because I never know what to expect, but I'm secure in the knowledge that I'll always be surprised and thrilled at different points during the show no matter who appears. For longtime Jam attendees, and there are plenty of 'em both from Asheville and from around the country, that's the reassuring constant: You're always gonna get some surprises you can't get any place else. Not even at Bonnaroo.

Complete Christmas Jam setlist available here.

Continue reading for more pics of the 21st Annual Christmas Jam...

Matt Abts - Gov't Mule
Vinnie Amico - moe.
Jim Bogios - Counting Crowes
Adam Duritz - Counting Crowes
Jeff Austin
Rob Derhak - moe.
Jorgen Carlsson & Danny Louis - Gov't Mule
Audley Freed & Jackie Greene
Warren Haynes
Warren Haynes
Nigel Hall
Jim Loughlin - moe.
Trombone Shorty
Brad Whitford
Brad Whitford & Warren Haynes
Christmas Jam
Counting Crows
Counting Crowes
Ani DiFranco
Fred Eltringham
Audley Freed
Chuck Garvey - moe.
Jimmy Herring
Jimmy Herring with moe.
Ron Holloway
Kevn Kinney
Eric Krasno
Danny Louis - Gov't Mule
George Porter Jr.
William Bell

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