21st Annual Christmas 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.
|Herring, Greene & Carlsson :: 12.12 :: Xmas Jam|
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.
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.
|Holloway, Whitford, Duritz, Austin :: 12.12 :: Xmas Jam|
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.
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