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Published: 2006/01/15
by Andy Tennille

Scenes from the Warren Haynes Christmas Jam 2005

“There’s a thousand ways to skin this cat. That’s what I love about playing the guitar.”

Jorma Kaukonen is cradling Warren Haynes’ beautiful, voluptuous blonde 1959 Gibson ES-335 guitar and instructing Gov’t Mule publicist Jim Walsh and I on the subtleties of the open G chord. Jack Casady, Kaukonen’s pal and band mate for the last 40 years in Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna, stands nearby talking with Grateful Dead drummer Bill Kreutzman.

“See, I play it with my thumb wrapped around the neck to get that B on the fifth string,” Kaukonen says as he flashes a toothy grin. “It’s a little awkward at first, but you’ll get used to it.”

The mood is relaxed and familial backstage at Warren Haynes’ Christmas Jam, the annual concert hosted by the Gov’t Mule and Allman Brothers guitarist to benefit Habitat for Humanity. Over nearly twenty years of hosting the event, the musician and Asheville, NC native has donated almost half a million dollars to the local Habitat chapter to aid toward the construction of six homes in the area. Haynes’ philanthropy has earned him a day named in his honor as well as the key to the City of Asheville; this year, local Habitat officials honored Haynes by announcing that the streets in a newly constructed subdivision will be named Warren Haynes Drive, Sabian Court (after the manufacturer of Gov’t Mule drummer Matt Abts’ drums), and Savannah Woods Court, in honor of the daughter of the late Allen Woody, co-founder of Gov’t Mule.

The laid-back attitude that permeates backstage bleeds over to the festivities onstage as well. Haynes kicked off this year’s show with a solo reading of his classic “Soulshine” and was joined on a cover of Seal’s “Crazy” by Edwin McCain, likely the longest running guest at the show having attended for the last umpteen years. McCain and Haynes were joined by another long-time attendee, Kevin Kinney, for Endless Struggle’s “Coming Back Around” and a great set-closing “I Shall Be Released.”

The Haynes/McCain/Kinney trio was followed by a revamped Drive By Truckers lineup featuring Patterson Hood, Jason Isbell and Brad Morgan joined by special guest Dave Schools on bass. The quartet ran through Truckers’ staples “Sink Hole” and “The Day John Henry Died” before being joined by country legend Marty Stuart on mandolin for “Heathens,” a tune Hood dedicated to his young baby girl who was in attendance for her second arena rock show. Former Black Crowes guitarist Audley Freed joined the group for Isbell’s “Decoration Day” and Haynes himself made an appearance on “Lookout Mountain” to close the set.

The biggest surprise of this year’s Jam may have been the set delivered by John Scofield on guitar, Andy Hess on bass, John Medeski on keys and Stanton Moore on drums. Covering tunes from Scofield’s amazing A Go Go album, the one-off jazz fusion supergroup was tight, Scofield’s slinky guitar dipping in and out of the deep pocket that Moore and Hess created as Medeski bounded along top on his Hammond organ. Haynes, keysman Ivan Neville and saxophonist Ron Holloway joined the group for an incredible cover of “Night Time Is The Right Time” by Ray Charles with Neville on vocals, likely the highlight of the entire evening. The set closed with Haynes dominating a “Lovelight” with his silky smooth slide work as Scofield looked on and laughed.

***

“That’s what this is all about, isn’t it?”

Edwin McCain grins and nods his head toward the stage as Dr. Ralph Stanley slowly makes his way into the spotlight. The reverence in McCain’s voice only hints at the great respect all of the musicians at the Christmas Jam have for Stanley, evidenced by the crowds gathered on the sidestages wanting a glimpse of one of the pioneering figures in the history of bluegrass music.

Accompanied by his grandson, Nathan, on mandolin and James Shelton on guitar, Stanley treated the crowd to some traditional bluegrass before falling into his classic “O’ Death.” The entire sold-out arena of more than 7,000 people fell silent to listen to the nearly 80-year-old living legend, and the subsequent roar that accompanied Stanley’s departure from the stage was deafening.

Warren Haynes and company have a knack for shining the event’s spotlight on the more obscure but no-less-deserving artists in American music. The perennial dark horse at last year’s Jam was Living Colour, the 90s rock quartet fronted by guitarist Vernon Reid and singer Corey Glover, and in prior years Cry of Love and the infamous Colonel Bruce Hampton and the Aquarium Rescue Unit returned from retirement for explosive sets.

Despite releasing a Billboard Top 200 album in 2004, Ray LaMontagne was the name least familiar to most jamband fans in attendance at this year’s Christmas Jam. Inspired to be a musician upon hearing Stephen Still’s “Tree Top Flyer” on the radio while working at a shoe factory in Maine, LaMontage pieced together a demo tape that eventually found its way to Chrysalis Music Publishing. Chrysalis signed LaMontagne and partnered him with producer Ethan Johns, resulting in Trouble, which was picked up by RCA Records and released in the fall of 2004.

LaMontagne opened with “Forever My Friend,” but the highlights of the young soul singer’s short solo acoustic set were surely his hit “Trouble” and the love ballad “Jolene.”

Borrowing equally from Cat Stevens as well as Van Morrison, LaMontagne writes great lyrics that are matched only by his sincerity as a performer, bearing his soul and emotions onstage each time he steps into the spotlight. Quite simply, LaMontagne represents one of the bright, young voices in music today.

***

“When I got a job with Lester Flatt, I bought this mandolin for $650. For years, I was real proud of the fact that it never had a scratch on it. When I got a job playing with Johnny Cash, he wanted me to teach him how to play it, but he ended up being a real bad mandolin player. Every once in a while, Johnny’d take my mandolin onstage and play along while June Carter sang. One night, I’m onstage playing, look over and there’s Johnny with a pocketknife out and he scratches a big cross on it and put his initials, "JRC." Then he flipped the mandolin over and autographed it. After the show, I said, Why’d you do that?’ and Johnny said, I don’t want you to ever forget the Lord.’”

Marty Stuart laughs as he delivers the last line of the story, his gray-streaked, gravity-defying hairdo bouncing perfectly along with his laughter. Stuart’s mandolin is a musical passport of sorts, the autographs that cover the face like stamps from the different musicians he’s played with over the years. Cash, Lester Flatts, Doc Watson, Vassar Clements and anyone who’s anyone really in bluegrass or country music has signed it, as well as Bob Dylan, Chuck Berry, John Lee Hooker, Tom Petty Willie Nelson, B.B. King, Quincy Jones and Natalie Cole. He’s even got a Billy Bob (Thornton) and a Bubba (former President Bill Clinton) to boot.

Opening his set with a lightning-fast solo mandolin performance of “Streamline Lover,” Stuart quickly endeared himself to the Christmas Jam crowd and delivered the sentimental knockout blow with “Dark Bird,” a tune he’d written for Cash shortly after his bandleader, neighbor and former father-in-law’s death in 2003.

“I like crows,” Stuart told the audience as he strode around the stage ala The Man in Black with an acoustic guitar. “They’re strange birds, and they dress like Johnny Cash.”

Stuart’s charismatic stage presence may have only been matched by his black leather pants, quite possibly the only pair donned in Christmas Jam history. Backed by Schools on bass, Gov’t Mule drummer Matt Abts, Haynes on guitar and Danny Louis on keys, Stuart closed his set with two choice covers Waylon Jennings’ “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?” and The Byrds’ “Mr. Spaceman.”

Wandering down the steps from the stage, I run into Schools as he exits stage left and comment that I’d never seen him have so much fun.

“You’re telling me,” Schools says. “I’ve been woodshedding all day for that. Didn’t want to be the one that screwed up when I got the chance to play with Marty Stuart.”

***

“What the hell is Serial Pod?”

Ivan Neville and I are seated at the catering area underneath the Civic Center as Neville scarves down a grilled chicken breast and glances over the schedule of tonight’s show. I shrug my shoulder unable to explain to Neville exactly what the meaning is behind the name that guitarist Trey Anastasio, bassist Mike Gordon and drummer Bill Kreutzmann have dubbed themselves for this, their debut performance.

Anastasio has been a bit of an enigma himself of late. The guitarist instigated the break-up of Phish last year and formed 70 Volt Parade to record Shine, a pop album at its core that was universally perceived as Anastasio’s stab at mainstream radio airplay. Reviews of 70 Volt Parade’s live performances have been less than stellar, leading to rumors that a possible reunion with Fish, Page and Gordo might be in the cards for 2006.

The group opened with an improvisational jam that ultimately broke into the familiar hoe-down rhythm of the Dead’s “Cumberland Blues,” Anastasio and Gordon harmonizing beautifully on vocals. Dipping into both the Dead and Phish’s back catalogue, Serial Pod’s set was a bit listless at times, Anastasio’s wandering guitar solos never really engaging with Gordon and Kreutzmann, who was active and visibly energized by the space and freedom of playing in a trio setting. The highlight of the set was a splendid, out-of-leftfield cover of Van Morrison’s “Sweet Thing,” the lowlight being a disastrous butchering of Jimi Hendrix’s “Angel.”

The inconsistency that marked Serial Pod’s debut performance was all but forgotten once Gov’t Mule took the stage around 2:30 a.m. to close the concert. Opening with “Perfect Shelter” off of the band’s most recent studio album Deja Voodoo, the Mule only played two original songs in their set (“Thorazine Shuffle,” the other), choosing instead to unveil a slew of great covers including Led Zeppelin’s “Living Loving Maid”, Bob Marley’s “Lively Up Yourself”, Robert Johnson’s “32-20 Blues,” Neil Young’s “Don’t Let It Bring You Down, ” The Beatles’ “She Said, She Said” and “Tomorrow Never Knows,” Temple of the Dog’s “Hunger Strike,” and Traffic’s “Dear Mr. Fantasy.” The grand finale of “I Know You Rider” featured Stuart, Anastasio and Haynes trading vocals with Schools on bass and Kreutzmann on drums, a fitting end to one of the greatest nights in rock music every year.

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