What’d you get for Christmas? Was it a three-bedroom house? If not, you probably weren't as happy as Ebrahim & Rezvan Ebrahimnajad. Along with their two sons, they’re the grateful recipients of a new house, thanks to Asheville Area Habitat for Humanity and the Warren Haynes Christmas Jam. Habitat used the $70,000 raised by 2002’s Christmas Jam to buy the land and build the house. Warren even paid the family a visit to welcome them to the neighborhood. It was in this spirit of giving and community that the concert was born, and as this year’s 15th Annual Christmas Jam can attest, the spirit has never been more alive.

Warren started the Christmas Jam in 1989 as a charitable jam session featuring musicians back in town for the holidays. The remote North Carolina mountain town of Asheville is renowned for its thriving music and arts scene. As Warren’s career exploded (he now plays with Gov't Mule, The Allman Brothers Band, and Phil Lesh & Friends), his friends became more famous and his fan base grew exponentially. The Christmas Jam outgrew many homes, finally settling into the 7000-seat Asheville Civic Center in 2001. This year, Warren invited some amazing friends to participate, stretching sounds across the musical spectrum, from bluegrass to funk, hip-hop to Skynyrd.

Last year the show opened with Asheville Mayor Charles Worley presenting Warren with the key to the city. This year the Mayor topped it by declaring December 20 to be Warren Haynes Day in Asheville, an especially touching honor with much of his family still living in the area. After welcoming everyone to the show, Warren sat back with his acoustic guitar for a beautiful rendition of “Glory Road,” followed by U2’s “One.” Next up was Warren’s nephew’s group The Ville Boyz. As you may have surmised from their misspelled name, Austin Haynes’ local group is a hip-hop outfit. The unit also includes Johnny Reynolds, Carnell Reynolds, and Chris Mills. They were backed up by local band Robot, composed of area veterans Tyler Ramsey on keys, Bill Reynolds on bass, and Mike Rhodes on drums, with Woody Wood sitting in on guitar. After unleashing two originals on the crowd, they closed with a cover of Run-DMC’s “Christmas in Hollis.”

Next to hit the stage was the Louisiana swamp-slide-guitar gumbo of the Sonny Landreth Band. Sonny’s latest album was just nominated for a Grammy in the “best contemporary blues” category, and his playing reflected an electric sense of urgency. They tore through three thick and dirty jams before Warren came out to join them for “Blues Attack,” the two blues masters conspiring to crank up the decibel level. Landreth finished the set with one more onslaught before yielding the stage to acoustic guitarist Edwin McCain.

Warren came back out to join McCain and the duo ran through an elegant rendition of Jimi Hendrix’s “Bold as Love,” followed by “Alive.” Warren stuck around as Black Crowes guitarist Audley Freed appeared with Kevn Kinney from drivin’ n’ cryin’ for an epochal 4-guitar version of Bob Dylan’s timeless “I Shall be Released.” New Gov’t Mule bassist Andy Hess then appeared with Lynyrd Skynyrd drummer Artimus Pyle for a take on the drivin’ n’ cryin’ classic “Straight to Hell.” Freed then returned for the set closing guitar explosion “Madman Blues.”

The North Mississippi Allstars were next to appear. Though they’ve known Warren since childhood, this was the first time their hyperventilating Southern groove has appeared at the Christmas Jam. They opened with “Po’ Black Maddie,” before launching into the frantic “Shake ‘Em On Down,” with guitarist Duwayne Burnside (son of blues legend R.L.) providing soulful vocals and scorching guitar solos. Warren came out to join them on “All Night Long” and stuck around as Widespread Panic vocalist John Bell came onstage. The crowd absolutely erupted as the first notes of “Turn On Your Lovelight” poured through the speakers. JB’s vocals were soaring over the audience as the deep jam finally morphed back into “All Night Long.” Pyle then returned for the set-closing “Whiskey & Rock 'n' Roll.”

Keller Williams was up next, opening with an instrumental before playing “Breathe” and then a new Christmas tune he’d just written. His new classic “Love Handles” followed, and then it was time for something unusual. Michael Kang from String Cheese Incident appeared onstage to join on “Best Feeling,” and then bluegrass legends (and New Grass Revival bandmates) Sam Bush and John Cowan came out to rip through Bob Dylan’s “Maggie’s Farm.” Cowan’s amazing trademark vocals sent Dylan’s declarations into the ether with a particular vengeance. This was Keller in full bluegrass mode, something I’d never witnessed before, his worldgrass acoustic riffs fitting in perfectly with the company. Mandolinist Jeff Austin and banjoist Dave Johnston, both from Yonder Mountain String Band, came onstage to complete the Keller Williams Big Bluegrass Band. The giant ensemble closed out the set with “Porta Potti Girl,” and as the group cleared the stage, only Bush and Cowan remained behind to seamlessly segue into Bush’s set.

After opening with the Robert Palmer/Little Feat tune “Sailin’ Shoes,” they were joined again by Kang, Austin, and Johnston for a bluegrass explosion on “Far Too Long For Me to Travel.” The group grew even larger when Warren appeared to lend his chops on “Same Ol’ River.” It was hard to tell at this point if even the musicians knew what to expect next. Each new song seemed an opportunity to assemble a new band on the spot. After Warren departed, the group wrapped up the set with “Good Woman’s Love” and led into one of the most anticipated sets of the night.

With Widespread Panic announcing their intention to take a year off the road in 2004, the Christmas Jam was one of the last opportunities for fans to see some of them together. John Bell came out alone and opened with “Ribs and Whiskey” followed by “Time Waits,” the sparseness of a single voice and guitar contrasting with the bombastic overtures we’d just witnessed. “Make-believe is all we have some of these days,” he sang before Panic bassist Dave Schools came out to add electric bass to “Papa’s Home.” JB plucked and banged his way through tasty chord progressions, doing his southern twang thang to perfection. Schools’ electricity counteracted JB’s acousticity for a delicate balance. The music was unusually restrained for an arena-sized venue, yet rocking in a quiet way. Panic drummer Todd Nance came out along with Warren to wrap up the set with J.J. Cale’s “Travelin’ Light.”

The Panic side projects continued with a rare appearance by Stained Souls. The core of the band is Col. Bruce Hampton and Tinsley Ellis on guitars, with Schools & Nance from Panic on bass & drums. For this set, they also added Danny Louis from Gov’t Mule on keyboards. Their sound is a jamband supernova, with soaring guitars and a lead-heavy rhythm section. Chugging and pounding through their songs, the Stained Souls set was undoubtedly one of the highlights of the evening. “Elevator to the Moon” opened the set and then Bell came back out to join his band mates for “I Wish You Would.” Local guitarist Mike Barnes, who grew up with Warren, appeared to lend his talents to “One Kind Favor” and Warren of course sat in for the set closing “Time is Free.”

By now the hour was getting late, and the crowd definitely needed something upbeat to keep the momentum going. Perhaps no band was more fitting to appear at that moment than the funky Meters. Phish fans will recognize drummer Russell Batiste from keyboardist Page McConnell’s side project Vida Blue. They opened the set with “Here Comes the Meter Man” into “Soul Island.” They followed with two of their most revered classics, “Fire on the Bayou” and “Just Kissed My Baby.” The funky Meters at this point were firing on all cylinders. Batiste’s crackling drums met with George Porter, Jr.’s flying bass lines and some amazing funk-rock guitar licks from special guest Ian Neville, who also stuck around for “People Say.” The crowd was delirious with the funk at this point, the entire Civic Center pulsing with the relentless groove. But the set wouldn’t be complete until Warren sat in, and thus he did for the set closing “Ain’t No Use.” Even if you weren’t looking at the stage, you could always tell the moment Warren stepped up. His crisp clean tone was wrapped especially tight, bursting out over the audience like a torpedo.

It had been a long, fruitful evening, and it was now one in the morning, but there was still time for Gregg Allman & Friends to wrap things up. As Allman settled in behind his keyboards, his Friends assembled alongside him: Warren on guitar, Danny Louis on second keyboards, Hess on bass, and Paul Riddle from the Marshall Tucker Band on drums. The evening had been devoted more to classic rock and blues flavors than typical jamband stylings, but this set seemed a perfect confluence of the two. They opened with “Just Before the Bullets Fly” and then Barnes came back out to join on “Statesboro Blues.” Landreth lent his guitar pyrotechnics to “Stormy Monday,” sticking around as Pyle reappeared and Schools replaced Hess for the Allman Brothers’ classic “Dreams.” Pyle remained as Hess returned with North Mississippi’s Luther Dickinson on guitar for the set closing “One Way Out.” It had been a remarkable evening of music, and one song seemed perfect to sum it all up. Gregg Allman & Friends returned for the encore, with Pyle & Freed, for a free-flowing version of “Soulshine.” The lyrics summed up the feeling in the room, as the crowd sang along to the chorus: “Got to let your soul shine, shine till the break of day.”

And with that, the 15th Annual Warren Haynes Christmas Jam had come to a close. 7000 happy fans, almost $100,000 raised for charity, 7 ½ hours of amazing music, all filmed for future DVD release. It truly is an amazing event that can bring so many people together for such a worthy cause. Most in the crowd felt very lucky to be there (especially since tickets sold out in 3 days), but it was about more than just watching great musicians jam together. There’s a distinct sense of honor just to have attended. These musicians leave their own families at Christmas to go to a cold mountain town and play music for strangers, making their own sacrifices to give something back to the world. By attending the concert and supporting the cause, we all get to chip in and contribute in our own way to the spirit of the holidays. As Col. Bruce said, “[Giving is] the reason for the season.”

Words by: Paul Kerr
Photos by: Eric Leaf
JamBase | North Carolina
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[Published on: 1/6/04]

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