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The Loop

Published: 2012/12/14
by Teague Dwyer

Warren Haynes Christmas Jam, Asheville Civic Center, Asheville, NC- 12/21/11

In honor of this weekend’s Christmas Jam 24, we look back 12 years to this review of the 13th Christmas Jam.

A Night Of 1000 Stars

More than a week before anyone had even set foot into an arena for New Year's festivities, the standard may well have been set for "show of the year." No, it didn’t take place in San Francisco, New York City, or even Atlanta, but Asheville, in the mountains of North Carolina. Asheville native Warren Haynes has been having his friends come to his hometown to jam around the holidays for 13 years now, and the event has gone from an intimate and informal gathering in local bars to the monstrous arena-rock marathon that took place Friday night at the Asheville Civic Center. With all proceeds benefiting Habitat For Humanity, four scheduled bands and a vast array of special guests rocked the capacity crowd until after 2 AM, setting the tone for a Merry Christmas.

The evening began around 7 o’clock with a video previewing Gov’t Mule’s massive project, “The Deep End,” with several interview clips featuring those performing on the All- Star albums. Shortly after, Atlanta band Drivin’ N’ Cryin’ appeared and played a brief but energizing five song set, which included the Black Crowes’ Audley Freed on guitar for “Fly Me Courageous” and Edwin McCain harmonizing on a spectacular “Straight To Hell.”

A short break and Haynes, acting as emcee for the evening, introduced his good friend John Popper and his band Blues Traveler. John Popper, once on the brink of death with severe health problems, looked absolutely amazing, and the newly-svelte front man led his energetic quintet through a solid hour and a quarter long set, highlighted by performances of “Carolina,” “Freedom,” “Pattern,” and a show-stopping “Mountains Win Again” with Popper dedicating it to old friends and Warren Haynes laying down a soul-aching slide guitar.

The most interesting part of the evening came as the army of roadies (who were swarming all night and keeping on top of what had to be a nearly impossible task) switched gear as a progression of acoustic performances took place. Seattle’s Danny Barnes was first, finger-picking “I’m Alone For Christmas.” Then Alvin Youngblood Hart appeared and laid down some sweet acoustic bottleneck on “Momma Don’t llow,” before being joined by Popper for “Devil Got My Woman.” Popper was then joined by Barnes, McCain, as well as Allman Brothers bassist Oteil Burbridge and Jimmy Herring, making a rare acoustic appearance. The group performed wonderful renditions of “That Sign On The Door” and “Alone,” with Popper's vocals on the latter delighting the audience.

By the time Phil Lesh And Friends appeared at half past ten, the frenzied crowd had already gotten its money’s worth, but the stakes had only risen. Lesh came out thumping had as he led the band into “The Golden Road (To Unlimited Devotion)” and jammed out and through the emotional highlight of the evening, a sing-along, reggae-ish rendition of Haynes “Soulshine” that lit up the hometown audience like nothing yet had that evening. Keyboardist Rob Barraco took the lead through the crowd-pleasing rockers “Loose Lucy” and “Tennessee Jed,” appropriate for Asheville’s geographical closeness to the Volunteer State. The fun continued through “Goin’ Down The Road Feeling Bad” which segued into the new tune, “Angel Band” featuring the now-signature Phil And Friends’ harmonies.

After a quick break, the boys broke into the new Robert Hunter original, “Night Of A Thousand Stars.” Perhaps the best post-Dead song in Hunter’s repertoire, Haynes destroyed it vocally, and the song is full of the guitar licks which makes Phil And Friends so special. The song ended in a flourish, and a short break ensued as special guests Robert Randolph and Col. Bruce Hampton moved into place. The ever-popular “technical difficulties” were then brought to light by Phil, while Barraco playfully filled the down time with a ragtime piano break. Soon the glitches in Randolph’s rig were fixed, and he and Warren traded smoking licks on a powerful Hampton-sung “Lovelight.”

Fully five hours after the show began, and the midnight hour had struck, Warren then walked to the microphone and told everyone to “stick around, we’ve got a lot more music for you.”

Indeed they did.

Gov’t Mule, made up of Haynes, drummer Matt Abts, Rob Barraco making a surprise appearance on keyboards and Oteil Burbridge starting on bass, wasted no time in waking up the exhausted crowd, with a loud, clear, and energetic “Rockin’ Horse.” Burbridge next thumped into “Thorazine Shuffle,” which was highlighted by a spooky Rob Barraco piano solo, and John Popper rejoined the fun on “Mule,” as he did on the studio version. Oteil thumped hard on the bass, as Warren’s guitar cut through the air with ridiculous precision for a segment that continued through “Sco-Mule,” which is began with a jazzy flair then became raucous like the rest. For Rob Barraco’s first ever set with the Mule, his B3 was a perfect foil to the Mule’s original power-trio mentality.

Phish’s Mike Gordon replaced Burbridge to the tone of a thunderous ovation for “Banks Of The Deep End” and “Time To Confess.” This lighter side of the Mule is certainly no less satisfying and Gordon acquitted himself admirably before being usurped by the thunderous Dave Schools of Widespread Panic. Schools' powerful, metallic bass lines lead the Mule through “Bad Little Doggie” and “Blind Man In The Dark” with a volume and depth that rivals AC/DC, yet the clarity of the Mule in a club or small theater.

Pedal-steel wunderkind Robert Randolph rejoined for the set closer, an emotionally-driven cover of CSN’s “Almost Cut My Hair,” showcasing Randolph’s talents. The band walked off stage, and the crowd, having been through the musical equivalent of a twelve round title fight, still had the energy to cheer for an encore. Warren obliged, but warning us, “we only got time for one more, before they throw us all in jail.”

With that, he invited out Audley Freed and Kevn Kinney, and started an a cappella verse of "Masters Of War," which exploded into Neil Young’s “Rockin’ In The Free World.” Everyone was tired but you couldn't tell as most of the remaining crowd pumped their arms in arena-rock fashion to the chorus, and at 2:07 AM, Warren Haynes said goodnight and the seven hour marathon was over.

This Christmas season means as much if not more as any other in recent memory. In times of uncertainty, turmoil, and grief, music can be very healing, and when all is taken into account, there may be nobody that understands that more than Warren Haynes. In closing I wish to thank the city of Asheville for being such a wonderful host, as well as all the bands who performed for charity, and especially Mr. Warren Haynes for his music and just-as-importantly, for his heart of gold.

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