Warren Haynes 17th Annual Christmas Jam, Asheville Civic Center, Asheville, NC- 12/17
I’m not sure what I was expectinga tree on stage, some colored lights around the mezzanine, maybebut downtown Asheville’s skyline would have to do for decking the halls: rounding the final turn on I-240, the city lights burst out like God had flipped a switch, and the stars appeared out of nowhere on the steep slopes that cradle the bustling burg. That and the snow that had started dotting the ground along I-40 somewhere between Winston-Salem and Statesville were the only indications that Christmas was, in fact, on its way. Of course, there were the bundled masses huddled together outside Asheville’s Civic Center, all in a state of constant movement to ward off the mountains’ bitter cold; then there was Mayor Terry Bellamy’s sincere thank-you speech to the evening’s hometown host; but there were no carols, no chestnuts, no wreaths or reindeerjust a long night of some of the best live music of the year.
After seventeen years, it’s a little late to break with tradition, so it was no surprise that Haynes hit the stage first. The man of this nearly 8,000-strong household officially greeted his guests, and after deciding to “go ahead and get this one over with,” launched into a fitting acoustic “Soulshine” opener that hushed the gathered throng. After friend Edwin McCain augmented Seal’s “Crazy” with his soul-drenched cathedral pipes, Haynes called up Kevn Kinney, who proved why he is one of American music’s undiscovered treasures. He dedicated the Dylan-esque “Comin’ Round Again,” to “the Gulf,” and the ambiguity suggested to some that maybe his Christmas wishes were intended for both gulfs.
Opening “I Shall Be Released” with a “Melissa”-like intro, the trio moved the crowd to ponder, and the a cappella climax nearly rivaled Ralph Stanley’s later set, which was the closest thing to church many in attendance would get this Christmas season. By the time Stanley had sung two bars of “Oh, Death,” the haunting prayer of a dying man from the O, Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack, not a creature was stirring except the snot-nosed fratboy behind me who wanted “some real music” under his tree. As a school teacher, I tend to be patient with the ignorant arrogance of youth, but Stanley commands respect, regardless of how small and frail his physical form may be. When the ingrate’s friend spoke up, simply correcting, “It is,” I couldn’t help but turn my head and reiterate, “You’re goddamned right it is!” As every artist on the bill poured out from backstage to watch from the wings, three generations of the Stanley family brought the entire Civic Center to a standstill as the godfather of bluegrass awed the crowd into a reverent silence.
The Drive-By Truckers’ Patterson Hood, Jason Isbell, and Brad “EZB” Morgan precluded Stanley’s set with another, far different southern tradition, barreling down Asheville’s mountain passes in the driver’s seat of their eighteen wheel, whiskey-fueled, diesel-guzzling southern rock n’ roll. With David Schools filling out the rhythm section, the semi-Truckers blew through the explosive “Sinkhole,” though Isbell would comment later, “I just can’t get nothin’ without three guitars.” Marty Stuart’s mandolin lent the shuffling “Heathens” a little more country, but it wasn’t until Audley Freed’s screaming guitar tore through the silk flowers on “Decoration Day,” that the band reached full strength. When they finally rolled into “Lookout Mountain” with Warren Haynes in the passenger seat, the trucker trio sounded like themselves again as three guitars echoed from the rock summit.
After a few pensive acoustic sets and the Truckers’ fist-pumping rock, my arrogant neighbor got his chance to dance when John Scofield and his chosen mates strutted on the stage. Joined by A Go Go cohort John Medeski on keys, Gov’t Mule’s Andy Hess on bass and Galactic’s Stanton Moore on drums, Scofield obliged the groove-hungry crowd with a set of funk that was as dirty as a whore at sunrise. As Medeski and Scofield traded licks like a couple of neighborhood kids slap-fighting for backyard supremacy, Moore held down the syncopated backbeat and Hess made himself at home again with his former bandleader. The supergroup injected a little soul into their funk on a cover of Ray Charles’ “The Night Time Is the Right Time,” but Haynes’ vocal and guitar cameo on a now traditional closer, “Turn On Your Lovelight,” sparked the occasional “humbug.” Tonight, as on every Christmas Jam night however, he’d have ample opportunity to redeem himself.
While anticipation was high for Trey Anastasio, Mike Gordon and Bill Kreutzmann to haul their surprises down the chimney, the crowd patiently unwrapped a set from singer/songwriter Ray Lamontagne, who filled the room with his urgent, weeping vocals (at times, a little too teary) and acoustic guitar. Though country icon Marty Stuart occasionally bordered on corny Nashville showmanship, “Dark Bird,” his dedication to neighbor and friend Johnny Cash, gave the room pause. Haynes, Schools, Danny Louis and Matt Abts helped him bring “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” to a rumbling close, and Roger McGuinn’s “Mr. Spaceman” closed the set with a gesture of good will from the country veteran. Hot Tuna’s stomping set of power blues shook the foundations and raised the roof on classics like “I Can’t Be Satisfied,” “Bowlegged Woman,” and “Rock Me Baby,” which brought Haynes out yet again for his final guest spot before he’d take the stage with Gov’t Mule.
Before serenading the crowd home, however, the graceful host graced the stage one last time to introduce the premiere performance of Serial Pod. Anastasio, Gordon and Kreutzmann emptied a mixed bag under the tree, giving perfect gifts at times but also wrapping up a few duds that were sure to find their way back to the mall tomorrow. Their most shining moments occurred during the chunky, space rock jams between songs: Anastasio had that look from the beginning, as the trio wandered their way into the Dead country classic, “Cumberland Blues,” and though the vocal harmonies came off like rotten egg nog, they’d redeem themselves later on a bluegrassy take of Van Morrison’s “Sweet Thing.”
“Chalkdust Torture” was the group’s rockinest number of the night, and as they drifted beyond the song’s atmosphere, Kreutzmann and Gordon led the way into a dark dissonance reminiscent of Phish’s improvised ’95 excursions. A plodding cover of Nirvana’s “On a Plain” was downright disrespectful, but it eventually stumbled into some of Anastasio’s hottest playing of the set on his own “Wave the Ocean.” Ivan Neville joined the party for a solid romp through Phish’s “Waves” before the band dropped another turd with a sloppy version of Jimi Hendrix’s “Angel.” The first, and perhaps only, performance of Serial Pod was redeemed in the end, however, as they boogied through a raucous “Loose Lucy” that left the eager crowd something fun to play with as they waited for Uncle Warren to arrive and dish out the last presents of the evening.
If it wasn’t already obvious from the heart and soul Asheville’s favorite son has put into this Habitat for Humanity benefit, it would be by the end of Gov’t Mule’s set. As the evening began to creep into the witching hour, much of the crowd had called it a night, but the closing set’s energy could have filled the Civic Center twice over. Haynes was obviously at home in more ways than one, and the opener, “Perfect Shelter,” reminded everyone of the reason we were there before pulling up a seat of honor for the dirty, growling rock and roll of “Bad Little Doggie.” Zeppelin’s “Livin’ Lovin’ Maid” did more than justice to the original, and Marley himself might have woken from his sleep for “Lively Up Yourself,” which featured John Medeski on what was easily the hardest rockin’ reggae Bob could have ever imagined. Audley Freed rejoined the festivities for a hearty take on Neil Young’s “Don’t Let It Bring You Down,” but it was straight Mule (along with some help from hometown buddy Mike Barnes) that ripped the paper off the gift of the night, the ever-rising wall of sound on “Hunger Strike” > “Dear Mr. Fantasy” > “Hunger Strike.”
Like every other Christmas, however, there was still one more present under the tree, and it was one the whole family could enjoy. Hess and Abts hit the hay before the big finale, but with Anastasio, Schools, Stuart and Kreutzmann joining Haynes and Louis for a rousing singalong of “I Know You Rider,” the evening closed with a group effort of brothers and cousins from far and wide. Just like any family gathering, it was at times a little unpredictable what would happen when certain people share the same roof, but despite a few minor musical misunderstandings, this 17th annual reunion of good music and good cheer accomplished exactly what every Christmas is supposed to: it brought long lost friends together with new acquaintances and gave its heart and soul in more ways than one. So you kids make sure to send Uncle Warren a thank you note.