Warren Haynes truly is one of the good guys in the music industry. His 29th annual Christmas Jam with its star-studded lineup blew the roof off Asheville, North Carolina’s U.S. Cellular Center on Saturday, December 9, 2017, despite the snowstorm that transformed the city into a treacherous yet beautiful winter wonderland. The inclement weather, unfortunately, forced the cancellation of Friday evening’s Pre-Jam at the Orange Peel and prevented some artists from arriving who were set to perform Saturday.
Despite the weather, the show raised considerable revenue for a charity near and dear to Haynes’ heart–Asheville Area Habitat for Humanity, with all proceeds benefiting this worthy non-profit organization. Christmas Jam and philanthropy have gone hand in hand since the event’s humble beginnings in 1988, and this year was no exception. The musicians perform with no monetary gain, and tickets sell out fast. Currently, over $2.1 million has been raised and close to 40 families have been assisted with affordable housing. Asheville is brimming with activity for days ahead of the Jam, with many volunteer opportunities available. What a wonderful way for Haynes to celebrate the season by giving back to his own community, and at the same time, including his fans from far and wide.
Opening the extensive evening of song at 6:30 pm sharp with her unique piano stylings was Christmas Jam alum Holly Bowling who also provided continuous entertainment between some of the performers. Bowling warmed up the eager crowd with piano versions of The Grateful Dead’s “St. Stephen” and “Cassidy” as well as Duane Allman’s stirring composition, “Little Martha”—the only Allman Brothers Band tune written by Allman alone.
Following Bowling, a jovial Haynes took the stage with an acoustic guitar along with Hawaii native and ukulele phenom, Jake Shimabukuro. Haynes traditionally sits in with some of his guests creating one-of-a-kind jams to the delight of the audience. Dueting on the Allman Brothers Band’s “Melissa” and finishing to rousing cheers, Haynes left the stage and Shimabukuro finished the 15-minute acoustic set with two songs including George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”
Warren Haynes & Jake Shimabukuro, “Melissa”
Country sensation Margo Price and her band brought a fresh sound to the Jam stage next, belting out seven high-energy numbers from both her debut and sophomore albums. Radiant in a form-fitting red holiday dress with flowing sleeves, Price and her acoustic guitar wowed with “Tennessee Song,” “All-American Made” (the title track from her latest release and a tribute to the late Tom Petty), and “Learning to Lose,” a duet Price recorded with Willie Nelson for her new record. Returning to the small stage, Bowling and Shimabukuro kept concert-goers enraptured with “Bird Song” and “The Other One” from The Grateful Dead, and then rounded it out with a stellar interpretation of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”
Margo Price, “Nowhere Fast”
Atlanta, Georgia’s southern rock darlings, Blackberry Smoke, kicked off their set in high gear and never stopped. Frontman Charlie Starr sounded better than ever as the band ripped into catalog favorites such as “Fire In The Hole, “Ain’t Got The Blues” and “Ain’t Much Left of Me” with an “Amazing Grace” teaser. Sitting in with the band for an emotional “Free On The Wing” was fellow Atlanta native and slide guitar wizard, Benji Shanks. “That’s for Brother Gregg Allman,” Starr announced, in heartfelt dedication to the late Allman.
Blackberry Smoke, “Fire In The Hole”
Adding some Americana into the mix, The Avett Brothers brought their particular brand of folk/bluegrass/country rock to the main stage. With their incredible harmonies, crazy-high falsettos and major fun factor, the six-song set included “Blue Ridge Mountain Blues,” “Laundry Room” (with a crowd clap-along), “Paranoia In B-Flat Major” and “Cigarettes, Whiskey and Wild, Wild Women,” written by Tim Spencer and famously covered by Buck Owens. Finishing on the main platform and moving to the small stage, Haynes sat in with The Avett Brothers to perform Merle Haggard’s “If We Make It Through December” and Bob Dylan’s “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere.”
The Avett Brothers, “Blue Ridge Mountain Blues”
The Avett Brothers were replaced by the surprise early appearance of Ann Wilson of Heart, as Haynes and Wilson paid homage to the late Tom Petty with “Southern Accents,” the title cut from his 1985 release and sixth album. Wilson implied that it also may have been dedicated to Haynes’ own mother, who was in the audience for her son’s fabulous event. As if this dedication wasn’t heart-wrenching enough, Haynes and Wilson brought out Shimabukuro and followed it up with the Audioslave original, “I Am The Highway,” in tribute to the late Chris Cornell.
Trey Anastasio and Classic TAB took the spotlight next and offered a lively, rejuvenating set including “Gotta Jibboo,” “Burn That Bridge,” “Everything’s Right,” “Aqui Como Alla,” “Sand,” “Dark and Down,” “Set Your Soul Free” and “First Tube.” Anastasio then joined Haynes on the small stage and the two absolutely slayed Trey original “Miss You” and The Allman Brothers Band’s “Midnight Rider”. After, Anastasio exited and Bowling rejoined Haynes for a poignant rendition of Bonnie Dobson’s “Morning Dew,” a song covered by many including The Grateful Dead and 31st of February, an early precursor to the Allman Brothers Band.
Trey Anastasio Band, “Gotta Jibboo”
“Jack [Pearson] and Jaimoe were supposed to be here, but they’re not, so we’re sending this out to them and everybody else,” quipped Haynes with a devilish grin. With numerous adjustments, Les Bros. ( a revamped Les Brers, the creation of the late Allman Brothers Band original drummer, Butch Trucks) ended up featuring Haynes, Gov’t Mule bassist Jorgen Carlsson, former Allman Brothers Band drummer Marc Quiñones, and former Marshall Tucker Band drummer Paul Riddle, keyboard player Bruce Katz, and singer Lamar Williams Jr.
Appropriately, the supergroup opened with “Ain’t Wastin’ Time No More” and then a rotating lineup of guests appeared for each subsequent song including long-time Haynes’ friend and founder of Asheville Guitar, Mike Barnes, on an incendiary “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed,” and “Southbound,” which also featured 14-year-old guitar prodigy, Brandon “Taz” Niederauer. Charlie Starr came out and played second guitar on “Blue Sky” followed by an off -the-chain “Dreams” as special guest Marcus King and Haynes traded killer licks while Williams nailed the vocals. The guitar duo outdid themselves on the set closer, “Whipping Post,” as Haynes sang out the emotion-charged lyrics, “Like a good friend told me, there ain’t no such thing as dyin’.”
Les Bros., “Ain’t Wasting Time No More”
Returning to the small stage as the main one was prepped for Gov’t Mule with Ann Wilson, King performed an acoustic set with a horn section and featuring guest appearances by Niederauer and Starr, the latter crooning out the blues standard, “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out.” It was refreshing to hear the young, up-and-coming stars mingling their talents with the established artists. Gov’t Mule, including Haynes, bassist Carlsson, drummer Matt Abts and multi-instrumentalist Danny Louis took the stage at the wee hour of 1:40am, and opened with “Traveling Tune” and “Thorns of Life,” two tracks off their new 2017 release, Revolution Come…Revolution Go. Then all hell broke loose with the return of the mighty Ann Wilson.
Gov’t Mule, “Traveling Tune”
Church indeed was in session and Wilson was preachin’ the gospel. Her vocals invigorated the dancing crowd and ripped into every last inch of the venue as epic Led Zeppelin covers bounced off the walls including “No Quarter,” “Black Dog,” the Willie Dixon-penned “You Shook Me” and “Immigrant Song.” Thrown into the mix were “Cry Baby,” famously recorded by Janis Joplin and written by Bert Berns and Jerry Ragavoy, and Heart’s iconic “Magic Man,” which even brought people out from backstage. Closing it all out at 3:00am with “Where’s My Mule,” Haynes thanked everyone for coming out and the house lights came on, capping off another Christmas Jam for the books.
Christmas Jam has become an annual pilgrimage for legions of fans. It is a lengthy production, always expanding into the early hours of Sunday morning. Combining its diverse collaborations, surprise guests, extended jams and feel-good vibes, it represents the true spirit of giving. Thank you, Santa Haynes, for capturing the essence of the holidays.
[Photos by Michael Yanko from Rock Legends Photography]