As the clock approached 3 a.m. on Saturday night (or Sunday morning depending how you look at it) Warren Haynes was on-stage leading Gov’t Mule through a powerful rendition of one of their signature songs, “Mule.” Haynes and his mates showed no sign of weariness despite this being the end of a marathon night and weekend in Asheville, North Carolina. Trumpeter Craig Sorrells served as the last guest of the 29th annual Christmas Jam, following in a long line of musicians who had come on stage and slayed since the concert at the ExploreAsheville.com Arena started eight hours prior. Sorrells delivered one powerful blast of his horn after another before Haynes stepped to the front of the stage, thanking and wishing everyone well before Gov’t Mule brought “Mule” and the show to a mighty conclusion. Considering the way the weekend started, Warren had a look on his face that was a mix of relief, appreciation and accomplishment.
One day prior to the main event, Asheville was hit with six inches of snow that wasn’t predicted by meteorologists until it was too late. Many flights coming into and out of the tiny Asheville Regional Airport were canceled on Friday and those that did make it had to find a way to travel the 20 miles to downtown with few taxi, Uber and Lyft drivers on the treacherous roads. As a result, a decision was made with local authorities to cancel the annual Pre-Jam held at The Orange Peel. The Pre-Jam lineup is never announced ahead of time, so all that was known was that Warren would perform. With many musicians, staffers and attendees unable to get to Asheville on Friday, the decision was understandable. However, fans will forever be guessing what would have gone down at The Orange Peel on December 8, 2017.
For those that made it to downtown on Friday, there were still a handful of musical options including a dueling piano bar and triple bill at the Asheville Music Hall. With no Pre-Jam, the Asheville Music Hall was filled to the brim for a show consisting of Josh Phillips, Soule Monde and Roosevelt Collier. Phillips showed off the songwriting prowess that has made him a star in Asheville and it wouldn’t be surprising to see him gain a national audience soon. Soule Monde features Ray Paczkowski and Russ Lawton from the Trey Anastasio Band and the pair provided killer grooves that served as the perfect dance party. Paczkowski was a mad man on the keys and tore into his solos in a way fans don’t see often with TAB. Collier, a sacred steel specialist, was joined by Trio mates Matt Latham and Anthony Cole for a riotous set that ended with a “Shakey Ground” superjam featuring Brandon “Taz” Niederauer on guitar, Phillips on percussion and Derrick Johnson of Yo Mama’s Big Fat Booty Band on trombone.
Thankfully, the main roads were cleared up by Saturday morning and the snow for the most part had stopped. Various venues across the city hosted Christmas Jam By Day activities. Over at the Satellite Gallery, an art show featuring an impressive array of live music photos and posters was on display. Pianist Holly Bowling provided the entertainment with a 90-minute set that was one huge “Lost Sailor” > “Saint Of Circumstance” sequence. Along the way Holly performed a stunningly beautiful cover of Phish’s “Fast Enough For You,” emotive renditions of the Dead’s “Unbroken Chain” and “Crazy Fingers” and let loose on “Scents & Subtle Sounds.”
Jack Of The Woods hosted a lineup put together by Xmas Jam mainstay Kevn Kinney, while local favorites Dr. Bacon infused One Stop with soul-grass. Up at the Asheville Music Hall, on-the-rise jam act Hayley Jane & The Primates won themselves some new fans with dynamic versions of “Cosmic Katrina” and “Hurricane Jane” as well as a romp through Jefferson Airplane’s “Volunteers.” The Marcus King Band drummer Jack Ryan also leads his own group, The Shady Recruits, and they too performed at the Music Hall. Jack Ryan & The Shady Recruits’ set was highlighted by a “I’m Working On A Building” > “Space Is The Place” > “I’m Working On A Building” sequence featuring Taz. The 14-year-old guitar wiz also had a chance to show off his vocals on “I Know You Rider.”
The doors to the arena opened right around 6 p.m. and by 6:30 the music had started. On the side of the main stage was a smaller performance area for “Tweener Sets” that made for few lulls in the action. Bowling started the evening was a riveting “St. Stephen” > “Free” combo ahead of her new original, “Promixa B.” While “Proxima B” is an original, it seemed to be inspired by the bones of ’90s grunge rock classics. Bowling has come on to the scene as a cover artist, but she clearly knows how to craft a song. “Cassidy” came next along with a gorgeous “Little Martha” that had those entering the arena at a steady pace bobbing their heads.
The host of the evening, Warren Haynes, then emerged for the first time. He was accompanied by Hawaiian ukulele sensation Jake Shimabukuro, who was making his Christmas Jam debut. The pair performed an incredibly sweet “Melissa” before Haynes left Shimabukuro to cover “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and his own “Dragon.” Finally, the time had come for the main stage action to begin and another Christmas Jam first-timer, Margo Price, had the honors of kicking it off. Price’s music mixes country and southern rock but at heart of her tunes is Margo’s powerful voice. She deserves all the acclaim she’s garnered over the past few years and the band even jammed for a bit on the “Paper Cowboy” finale.
Next up was a special Tweener set featuring Bowling and Shimabukuro. Their sounds meshed perfectly on a cover of the Grateful Dead’s “Bird Song,” Jake’s “6/8” and a stunning rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” Over on the main stage, Blackberry Smoke crushed a six-song set featuring multiple variations of southern rock with Charlie Starr singing from his gut on such standouts as “Waiting For The Thunder” and “Free On The Wing.” The band was joined by old friend Benji Shanks for the last portion of the set including a short-and-sweet “Mountain Jam” interlude.
If there was ever a true intermission, it came after Blackberry Smoke’s set as all of the evening’s musicians gathered backstage for a group photo. However, The Avett Brothers took the stage in what seemed like only 15 or 20 minutes after BBS. The Avetts went with a stripped-down lineup for the performance of Scott Avett, Seth Avett, Bob Crawford and Joe Kwon. Seth, Scott & Co. offered a throwback to the days before they played such venues as Red Rocks and Madison Square Garden with songs they don’t play often now including “Blue Ridge Mountain Blues” and “Cigarettes, Whiskey, and Wild, Wild Women.” Then, to the delight of the crowd, came staples “Laundry Room,” “Paranoia In B Flat” and “No Hard Feelings.”
The Tweener sets were often just as good as the main stage performances and when Warren took the side stage and welcomed The Avetts, fans rejoiced. Up first was Merle Haggard’s “If We Make It Through December,” which was an Avett Brothers debut. Then, Warren and The Avetts teamed for a tasteful and impressive rendition of Bob Dylan & The Band’s “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere.” While The Avetts vacated the stage, Haynes wasn’t done yet. One of the highlights of the night came as Ann Wilson emerged for Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers’ “Southern Accents.” The crowd was in awe at the beauty found by the meshing of these two legendary artists’ voices. Wilson stuck around to pair with Haynes and Shimabukuro on Audioslave’s “I Am The Highway.” The last two songs were fitting tributes to two great musicians who died in 2017: Tom Petty and Chris Cornell.
After a few minutes Trey Anastasio took the stage with his Classic TAB ensemble. Trey originally put together Classic TAB, which finds the Phish guitarist joined by Paczkowski on keys, Lawton on drums and Tony Markellis on bass for a 2008 tour that marked his return to the road following a 2006 drug arrest. Anastasio brought the group on tour again in 2010 with horns and waited until this year’s Christmas Jam to reunite the lineup once more. The guitarist sounded crisper and sharper than usual. Turns out he was debuting the biggest change to his rig in 20 years.
Classic TAB opened with the bombast of “Gotta Jibboo” and then showed off a completely different side of Anastasio’s songwriting with “Burn That Bridge.” Up next was “Everything’s Right,” which kept the theme of showcasing Trey’s shreddy chops. What followed was a huge treat for the Anastasio fans in attendance as Trey and Classic TAB busted out a cover of the groovy instrumental “Aqui Como Alla.” The Marc Ribot cover was a staple of Anastasio’s first solo tour in 1999 and was played a handful of times in 2001 before disappearing … until the Christmas Jam. “Sand” featured the guitarist’s most impressive solo of the night, “Dark & Down” was another burner, “Set Your Soul Free” was the most well-jammed tune of the set and “First Tube” provided a powerful climax to a winning performance.
Once again Warren took the side stage and this time he invited Trey to join him. Our first ever Trey Anastasio/Warren Haynes acoustic duo performance started with “Miss You,” a song the Phish frontman wrote about his late sister Kristy. When Bob Weir sat-in with Phish in 2016, the Grateful Dead guitarist asked the band if they could play “Miss You” and Bobby wound up singing the ballad. This time around Warren and Trey shared vocal duties to great effect. Haynes also provided a slide solo. Then, the pair provided another magical moment by performing “Midnight Rider” in honor of Gregg Allman. Anastasio bid the crowd farewell, but Haynes stuck around to play “Morning Dew” with Bowling and the Bonnie Dobson cover by that duo was as great as it sounds on paper.
Speaking of Gregg Allman and the Allman Brothers Band, the penultimate main stage performance came from a newly assembled group called Les Bros. The band featured longtime ABB members Warren Haynes and Marc Quinones along with Gregg Allman Band keyboardist Bruce Katz, vocalist Lamar Williams Jr., Gov’t Mule bassist Jorgen Carlsson and former Marshall Tucker Band drummer Paul Riddle. The group was put together last minute as key members Jaimoe and Jack Pearson couldn’t make it to Asheville. However, with Haynes on guitar throughout the set, no one was complaining. Les Bros rollled through one Allman Brothers Band classic after another and often with guests. Mike Barnes added to “In Memory Of Elizabeth Reed;” Taz, Barnes and Sorells helped crush “Southbound;” Starr added to an impactful “Blue Sky” and Marcus King paired with Haynes to take attendees to guitar heaven on “Dreams” and “Whipping Post.” King then provided the evening’s final Tweener set with assistance from Taz, Stephen Campbell, Kyle Snuffer, Sorrells, Starr and Dean Mitchell. The standout moment was the “Nobody Knows You When Your Down & Out” finale sung by Starr and featuring King, Sorrells, Campbell, Mitchell and Snuffer.
Gov’t Mule has spent most of the time since May on tour and their extensive time on the road has made them about as tight as they’ve ever been. By the time Warren Haynes & Co. took the stage, the arena had cleared out so that only the die-hards remained. Haynes is no fool, he’s been doing this for 29 years and knew his band wouldn’t go on until 1:40 a.m. Yet, he’s selfless and was happy to put the spotlight on the amazing musicians he assembled for the event. The guitarist had a digital clock set up in front of him so he could adapt his set however he needed to in aims of finishing by 3 a.m. But don’t get it twisted, Gov’t Mule headlines for a reason. Haynes, Carlsson, drummer Matt Abts and multi-instrumentalist Danny Louis were a powerful force that played second fiddle to no one. Well, except Ann Wilson.
The Heart frontwoman was making her second appearance with the Mule following an August guest spot at the Lockn’ Festival. If the near 2 a.m. start time was an issue for Wilson, she sure didn’t show it. After opening with Revolution Come…Revolution Go standouts “Traveling Tune” and “Thorns Of Life,” Ann emerged to a thunderous ovation from those remaining. Up first was a huge surprise in a perfectly-played cover of Led Zeppelin’s “No Quarter.” Gov’t Mule and Ann Wilson hadn’t performed the song at Lockn’ and they absolutely nailed the rendition in Asheville. More Zeppelin laid ahead in killer covers of “Black Dog” and “Immigrant Song.” Between the two came Ann singing as if her life depended on it during “Cry Baby,” a song popularized by Janis Joplin, and a blues cover Gov’t Mule has played over 300 times yet sounded brand new with Wilson leading – “Mother Earth.”
If there were any complaints, the lack of Heart classics would be one. Gov’t Mule and Ann Wilson ended their six-song collaboration with “Magic Man” and the version in Asheville was absolutely wonderful. “Barracuda” would’ve been nice, but that’s a small quibble considering all the magical moments that took place on Saturday night. As noted in the intro, Gov’t Mule ended the festivities with a triumphant “Mule” featuring Craig Sorrells.
Now, let’s say Saturday night’s concert was just about the incredible music that filled each set. Then, the 29th annual Christmas Jam would be a rousing success and fantastic endeavor for all involved, but the event came with a purpose. Warren Haynes Presents: The Christmas Jam has raised over $2 million for the Asheville chapter of Habitat For Humanity. Nearly 40 homes have been built thanks in large part to the first 28 concerts and the benefits have helped offset infrastructure and development costs for ENTIRE Habitat neighborhoods in the Asheville/Buncombe County area. A home is being constructed on Jon Kraus Way in Arden with funds from the 2016 Christmas Jam and likely the same scenario will occur in 2018 with funds raised this past Saturday night. Fans were able to “sign a stud” at the concert as part of framing that will be used to build a house. So not only was the 29th annual Christmas Jam a magical musical event, the concert also served a great purpose.
In the words of JamBase’s own Chad Berndtson, “Christmas Jam doesn’t disappoint, and in its 29th year, it’s clear it has plenty of tire tread left for lovers of eclectic, jam- and collaboration-heavy bills. See you for Christmas Jam 30.”
Full Show Audio (Taped by Dillon Fries)
Videos Captured By Scott Gibson
HOLLY BOWLING (pre-show)
Set: St. Stephen > Free, Proxima B, Cassidy, Little Martha
WARREN HAYNES & JAKE SHIMABUKURO
Melissa, While My Guitar Gently Weeps (Jake solo), Dragon (Jake solo)
Set: Nowhere Fast, Tennessee Song, Wild Women, Hurtin’ (On the Bottle), Learning to Lose, All American Made, Paper Cowboy
HOLLY BOWLING & JAKE SHIMABUKURO
Set: Bird Song > 6/8, Hallelujah
Set: Fire in the Hole, Let It Burn, Waiting for the Thunder, Free on the Wing (w/Benji Shanks, guitar), Ain’t Got the Blues (w/Benji Shanks, guitar), Will the Circle Be Unbroken Intro > Ain’t Much Left of Me
THE AVETT BROTHERS
Set: Blue Ridge Mountain Blues, Cigarettes, Whiskey and Wild, Wild Women, Country Blues, Laundry Room, Paranoia in B Flat, No Hard Feelings
Set: If We Make It Through December (w/The Avett Brothers), You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere (w/The Avett Brothers), Southern Accents (w/Ann Wilson), I Am the Highway (w/Ann Wilson and Jake Shimabukuro)
TREY ANASTASIO – CLASSIC TAB
Set: Gotta Jibboo, Burn That Bridge, Everything’s Right, Aqui Como Alla, Sand, Dark and Down, Set Your Soul Free, First Tube
Set: Miss You (w/Trey Anastasio), Midnight Rider (w/Trey Anastasio), Morning Dew (w/Holly Bowling)
LES BROS (Marc Quinones, Warren Haynes, Paul Riddle, Lamar Williams Jr., Bruce Katz, Jorgen Carlsson)
Set: Ain’t Wastin’ Time No More, In Memory of Elizabeth Reed (w/Mike Barnes, guitar), Southbound (w/Mike Barnes, guitar, Brandon “Taz” Niederauer, guitar, and Craig Sorrells, trumpet), Blue Sky (w/Charlie Starr, guitar), Dreams (w/Marcus King, guitar), Whipping Post (w/Marcus King, guitar)
Set: Remember, Jealous Man (w/ Stephen Campbell), Where I’m Headed (w/Brandon “Taz” Niederauer, guitar and Stephen Campbell), Rita Is Gone (w/ Stephen Campbell, Dean Mitchell, Kyle Snuffer & Craig Sorrells), Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out (w/Craig Sorrells, trumpet, Stephen Campbell, Dean Mitchell, Kyle Snuffer, Charlie Starr)
Set: Traveling Tune, Thorns of Life, No Quarter (w/Ann Wilson, vocals), Black Dog (w/Ann Wilson, vocals), Cry Baby (w/Ann Wilson, vocals), Mother Earth (w/Ann Wilson, vocals) > You Shook Me (w/Ann Wilson, vocals), Immigrant Song (w/Ann Wilson, vocals), Magic Man (w/Ann Wilson, vocals), Mule (w/Craig Sorrells, trumpet)