Review & Photos | Warren Haynes Christmas Jam | Asheville
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.
Throughout the weekend, The Satellite Gallery, on Broadway in Downtown Asheville, hosted Xmas Jam’s accompanying art show, featuring the work of concert photographers and printmakers such as Jay Blakesberg, Dino Perrucci and Robbi Cohn. As complimentary beers flowed, patrons and concert goers mixed with the artists in the crowd. Gregg Allman even stopped in to admire the work. The show was beautifully arranged, especially the vibrant poster psychedelia of John Warner and the photography of Robbi Cohn. An off the cuff moment captured in Telluride by photographer Robbi Cohn, featured Jerry Garcia as he mentioned something lighthearted to a laughing Bob Weir. The photo somehow seemed to encapsulate the spirit of the weekend.
The lineup for Saturday night meant a far more mellow affair as O.A.R and Michael Franti gobbled up the prime-time spots, abutting exciting reunions of Aquarium Rescue Unit and Sco-Mule. O.A.R’s spirited, horn-heavy set was a perfect counterpoint to Michael Franti’s reggae-fied roots rock. Franti and his gang of Christmas Jam guests were exceptionally tight. Grace Potter and the Nocturnals fiery set, including a cover of “Gimme Some Lovin’,” set up the final performance of the entire weekend, Gov’t Mule starting with the Sco-Mule reunion. Perhaps the musical highlight of the whole weekend was Sco-Mule’s take on John Scofield’s trusty tune, “Hottentot.” Joined by Dr. Dan Matrazzo from Aquarium Rescue Unit, Haynes and Scofield invigorated the crowd with an almost 12-minute take on the song, exchanging tell-tale solos and looks of approval upon one another. Potter would bring some of her undeniable star power to Mule’s set as she joined them for Fleetwood Mac’s “Gold Dust Woman,” the weekend closing performance.
Across the hundreds of songs and collaborations, sit-ins and other spontaneous musical moments, the ones that websites and tweets and blog posts can’t predict or capture, there was one recurring theme: Home.
We always seem to return to it, these musicians seemed to be saying. In their own words and in their various styles, this was the message. No matter how far we travel in order to eek out a living doing what we love: Bringing music, dance, warmth and passion to fellow travelers, we always want for home. The last stop on the train, the first glimpse of a town as one crests the mountains, back down the valley. Asheville is home. It is Warren’s home town and for 25 years he’s been leaving his door wide open for the musicians he loves to come inside, who answer his call to join him and others onstage for a celebration during the holidays, the time to give back.
We should never forget that Warren’s contributions to Habitat for Humanity are the driving impetus of the Christmas Jam. And that from his dutiful work, he’s had the opportunity to hand over keys to a new home to someone in need. I saw some of those homes on my way into Asheville, on a tour provided me by locals. “Warren built those homes right there,” they said. Nothing fancy, nothing big, but more than enough, a row of homes nonetheless, for in communities like this, as small and tightly-connected, with as much innovation underway, in constant dialogue with its noble past, with prosperity looming but with a proud struggle still very much a fact. The community has found other ways to nourish itself, to sustain and regulate itself. The city is bursting at the seams with fresh ideas, new people. Technology, local food, craft drink, artisanal wares, artists, painters, poets, chefs. They are all here. Alongside the musicians. Looking to contribute their own forms of kindling to Asheville’s campfire.
If that isn’t the purest form of Holiday Spirit then I don’t know what is. Music is the fire that heats the hearth, and every year that goes by, this community grows stronger, grows warmer. Warren Haynes has much to be proud of. Asheville is certainly proud of him.