Guitarist Warren Haynes is not only one of the hardest working musicians in the industry, but he’s also one of the kindest and most giving. Last weekend, he hosted the 28th annual Christmas Jam at the US Cellular Center in Asheville, North Carolina. This annual event benefited the Asheville Area Habitat for Humanity, with proceeds going towards constructing energy-efficient homes, as well as purchasing and developing land for Habitat subdivisions. More than $2 million dollars have been raised from this event for the organization, helping 36 families in the process.

The marathon event, known for going well into the wee hours, offered pre-parties, which warmed up music lovers all over the city, before the sold out main event began around 6 PM. Asheville Music Hall, One Stop, and Jack of the Wood venues featured music from various artists all day long, with 100% of the proceeds also going towards Asheville Area Habitat for Humanity. Not one single artist made a dime from their involvement, a true testament that the giving spirit is alive and well in the music community. Some locals referred to the weekend as the New Year’s Eve of Asheville, due to the high energy that was swirling around town.

Pianist Holly Bowling not only kicked off the festivities with her inspiring musical configurations, but performed between acts throughout the entire evening, ensuring the music truly never stopped. xmas-jam32Host, Warren Haynes, made his debut appearance at the jam performing solo with his lone guitar, starting his show off with “The Real Thing.” The venue was attentive, as you could hear a pin drop while he performed.

Jamey Johnson and Alison Krauss brought a country flair to the venue as they kicked off their set with “High Cost of Living,” and brought fans to their feet, singing right along with “When You Say Nothing At All.” George Porter Jr., Eric Krasno, Terence Higgins, Branford Marsalis and John Medeski proceeded to blow the roof off with their set, as Marcus King wasted no time in joining the stage and kicking ass with his incredible guitar talent.

Porter’s deep growling tones enticed the audience to join in during their set, especially when “Sugaree” made an appearance, which brought heavy hitter Bob Weir to the stage. The cheers from the audience deafened the venue, causing an explosion of intense energy in the building. This extended tune was crammed with jammy goodness, with both Krasno and Porter showing off their goods. “Iko Iko” finished off this hot and heavy set, with Weir staying until the set ended.

Michael McDonald took to the stage after a quick sound check and brief intermission. He began with speaking of equality in the nation and peace for all. His set was nothing but magical, and included Audley Freed and Don Was, alongside Higgins and Medeski. Marsalis took to the stage when he broke into “I Keep Forgettin’.” “What A Fool Believes” and “Taking It to the Streets” made sure to keep everyone dancing the night away with these heavy fan favorites. xmas-jam18

Steve Kimock and Duane Trucks brought the house down as they joined Was and Weir, after Weir performed solo on “Easy to Slip.” Krauss joined on both vocals and fiddle during a simply beautiful rendition of “Peggy-O.” Her fiddle sang across the strings, as her tender vocals created a perfect harmonious balance during the melody. Dry eyes were in short supply throughout the crowd. Haynes, Bowling and Marsalis also joined in mid-set to perform along with several Grateful Dead tunes, including “He’s Gone” and “Ripple.” Weir was on fire and performed with full on energy throughout the night. The venue reacted with gratitude and thankfulness for his appearance the entire evening. Meanwhile, Marsalis added a flair of brass, taking the audience on a wild ride that combined Weir’s flip flop guitar tones, elevating the music into deeper layers of jamming for the audience.

The Last Waltz crew took to the stage, and the audience took to their feet. The stage was crammed with musicians, including Haynes, Was, Higgins, McDonald, Medeski, Johnson, and bringing out Mark Mullins and Levee Horns. The whole cast of characters wasted no time as they went right into “Up On Cripple Creek,” once again bringing deafening cheers from fans. Horns were stuffed into “Georgia On My Mind,” including tuba. Bringing out even more musicians, the end of this magical set brought Bob Margolin, who was part of xmas-jam7the original Last Waltz, and Smoky Greenwell. “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” finished out this mind-blowing set, which no one wanted to end.

After Bowling’s last between-set performance, Gov’t Mule closed out the incredibly long evening of music and magical surprises. Everyone made an appearance on stage, with even more appearances by Rocky Lindsley, Mike Barnes, Jeff Sipe, Paul Riddle, and Tony Coleman. The tune that closed the entire event was “Mountain Jam.” What an event it was.

Christmas Jam is a marathon, not a sprint. If you’ve never been, be prepared to get lots of sleep ahead of time. If you’re a repeat attendee, the magic keeps fans coming back again and again. Put this on your list of must see events next year, especially because the proceeds give back to the community. For more information on Christmas Jam, please visit their official website.

Words and photos by Sarah Bourque.