Warren Haynes‘ Christmas Jam is the gift that keeps on giving, bringing world-renowned musical talent to the guitarist’s hometown of Asheville, NC for three decades. For the 32nd annual installment of the former Allman Brothers Band member’s charity get-together for Asheville Area Habitat for Humanity and BeLoved Asheville, Haynes came down the chimney at the ExploreAsheville.com Arena on a sleigh loaded with classic rock royalty Billy F. Gibbons (ZZ Top), Slash, Jason Bonham’s Led Zeppelin Evening and more than enough guitars to string the halls.

The 2023 lineup for Christmas Jam told a story of hard rock history, from the basics of Zeppelin through the ’90s with groove metal titans Clutch and all the way to the modern era, highlighting those actively keeping the next generation head-banging. Of course, there were plenty of other presents under the tree, like the first show by Joe Russo’s Almost Dead guitarist Tom Hamilton‘s American Babies in six years and a special superjam by Joe RussoGeorge Porter Jr. (The Meters), and John Medeski. Through it all, Haynes was our gracious holiday host, playing with every band on the lineup.

The audience was kept in the dark on the evening’s schedule, with surprises around each quick turnover on the venue’s two stages. Tom Hamilton was the “low man on the totem pole,” as he referred to it, with American Babies starting off the marathon evening at 7 p.m. sharp. The pulsating 35-minute set was fueled by Hamilton’s rollicking electric folk-rock songwriting and the power trio of Tom, brother Jim Hamilton on bass, and longtime collaborator Joe Russo on drums. The band had not played an official set since The Peach Music Festival 2017 but showed no signs of cobwebs. This latest incarnation of the shifting lineup capitalized on Hamilton and Russo’s dynamic musical chemistry, distilled here to its rawest form in the power trio format.

Following a “tweener” solo set by Haynes on the mini-stage adjacent to the main grand stage, Clutch dialed up the intensity to make undeniably clear the heavy-hitting tone of the evening. Even amid the haze of the band’s stoner-rock sound, elements of Clutch’s blues influence shined through, particularly on songs like “Cypress Grove”, highlighting a stylistic connection to fellow acts Billy F. Gibbons and Haynes’ own Gov’t Mule. Within the diversity of each Christmas Jam lineup, Haynes and company always manage to find the common musical thread. The heavy metal highlight of the evening came early when Warren joined Clutch for an unruly cover of the Black Sabbath gem “Lord of this World”.

Clutch, Warren Haynes – “Lord Of This World” (Black Sabbath) – 12/9/23

[Video: Kathy June]

Back on the side stage, budding bassist and bandleader Karina Rykman made her presence known with a short but potent tweener set. The rising psychstress gave a dutiful plug to her new Trey Anastasio-produced debut album, Joyride, spinning the ExploreAsheville.com Arena into a prog-rock disco ball. Karina expanded her trio of guitarist Adam November and drummer Chris Corsico to include—who else?—Warren Haynes, who made himself right at home both physically and musically on the small stage for Rykman’s “Dirty South”. Karina’s occasional collaborator John Medeski also stopped by to give his support on swirling B3 organ. After that set, they oughta start calling her Arena Rykman.

The hard rock history lesson returned to the fundamentals next with a performance by Jason Bonham’s Led Zeppelin Evening that cut back to this writer’s head-banging adolescence. Arena-rock renditions of classics “Immigrant Song”, “Black Dog”, “Over the Hills and Far Away”, a thundering “When The Levee Breaks”, and “Ramble On” (previously heard covered by Billy Strings at this same arena) struck a core memory of so many days and nights spent learning Jimmy Page riffs on my first guitar. My personal wishlist was fulfilled when Warren Haynes stepped out to tear up “Whole Lotta Love” for the finale.

After nearly three-and-a-half hours of consistently chaotic hard rock, our musical palette cleanser came in the form of the funk with a late-addition combo of Joe Russo, John Medeski, and George Porter Jr. Using The Meters classic “Just Kissed My Baby” as a springboard, the group—accented by saxophonist Bill Evans—never broke stride as it developed a continuous jazz-inspired jam through other classics by Isaac Hayes and B.B. King, with local The Fritz vocalist Datrian Johnson vamping over the top throughout.

In hour four of the musical marathon, the unseasonably warm Asheville night blew in some Texas heat from ZZ Top guitarist and bearded bandito Billy F. Gibbons. Haynes joined Gibbons for his entire set, as did Joe Russo and new Gov’t Mule bassist Kevin Scott (who fit right in with his belly-length beard) as they trucked through classics from Top’s highly underrated gem of a third album, Tres Hombres (1973). Of particular note was a “Beer Drinkers & Hell Raisers” during which Haynes took on the role of the late Dusty Hill as he traded vocals back and forth with Billy, the rowdy number inspiring those in the crowd with a tall boy in hand to raise it skyward.

The undercard to the eventual main event matchup between Haynes and Slash, this bout with Gibbons did not give off the feeling of a six-stringed shootout. Instead, these two blues masters reveled in the opportunity to play together, neither with anything left to prove, jamming for the love of the game.

Finally, Gov’t Mule had the honor, the duty, and the privilege of closing out Christmas Jam. Beginning the big finale just shy of midnight, Haynes and company ran through a few contractually obligated tracks off their latest album, Peace…Like A River. Following the headbanging hard rock of Zep and Clutch and the old blues of Billy Gibbons, the heavy load blues of Gov’t Mule felt like a fitting way to bring the sphere of influence full circle. Warren Haynes was, of course, good and warmed up at this point in the evening, with the 63-year-old seemingly never setting down his guitar the entire night.

Jason Bonham also took his shot at being one of the evening’s most valuable players when he relieved Matt Abts of duty on “How Could You Stoop So Low”, opening the floodgates of special guests. At long last, nearly five hours after the doors to the concert first opened, the mythical Guns N’ Roses guitarist Slash appeared onstage, joined by his angel-throated partner-in-crime Myles Kennedy.

This certainly wasn’t the time to break from the theme, so Kennedy led the band through FM rock radio favorites Bad Company‘s “Feel Like Making Love” and AC/DC‘s “You Shook Me All Night Long”. The main attraction, however, was in the long-awaited interplay between Slash and Warren Haynes. The heavyweight matchup served as the culmination of the evening, Slash’s arena rock guitar playing taking center stag in a style that was perhaps less collaborative but certainly no less thrilling than the evening’s previous players.

Slash snuck in a lone original “Starlight” alongside Temple of the Dog‘s “Hunger Strike”, Traffic‘s “Dear Mr. Fantasy”, Bob Dylan‘s “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”, and Lynyrd Skynyrd‘s “Simple Man”, the latter of which saw Gibbons re-join the party for a repeat of a collaboration previously seen on this year’s CMT Music Awards. Plenty of legends came onstage that night, but for the penultimate song of the evening Haynes led a tribute to late guitar hero Jeff Beck with a freewheeling “Freeway Jam”. Finally, just shy of 1:30 a.m., Warren gathered the guests around onstage to cap off the evening with a “Soulshine” appropriately jubilant for the holiday season.

Gov’t Mule, Slash, Myles Kennedy, John Medeski – “Soulshine” – 12/9/23

[Video: dork42775]

So, this is Christmas Jam, and what have you done? Well, in the 32 editions of Warren Haynes’ annual concert, the landmark local event has raised over $2.8 million for Asheville charities, brought in hundreds of some of the country’s best musicians to this town, and similarly introduced so many more visitors to the inherent charm of the Western North Carolina music hub. As we clean up the wrapping paper and beer cans of another successful celebration, let’s all give thanks to the reason for the season: Warren Haynes, Habitat for Humanity, and all of the people from right here and far and wide that make the Asheville music scene a gift the entire world can enjoy. Merry Christmas Jam.

Check out a gallery of images from Christmas Jam 2023 courtesy of photographer Stephan Pruitt along with a collection of fan-shot videos and a detailed setlist.

Gov’t Mule, Slash, Myles Kennedy – “You Shook Me All Night Long” (AC/DC) – 12/9/23

[Video: dork42775]

Gov’t Mule, Slash, Myles Kennedy – “Starlight”– 12/9/23

[Video: dork42775]

Gov’t Mule, Slash, Myles Kennedy – “Hunger Strike” (Temple Of The Dog) > “Dear Mr. Fantasy” (Traffic) – 12/9/23

[Video: Cocktails]

Gov’t Mule, Slash, Myles Kennedy – “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” (Bob Dylan)– 12/9/23

[Video: conrad sullivan]

Gov’t Mule, Slash, Myles Kennedy, Billy F. Gibbons – “Simple Man” (Lynyrd Skynyrd) – 12/9/23

[Video: David Oppenheimer]

Gov’t Mule, John Medeski, Bill Evans, Mike Barnes – “Freeway Jam” (Jeff Beck) – 12/9/23
[Video: conrad sullivan]

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American Babies: Streets of Brooklyn, American Babes, Invite All Your Friends, Swimming, Rocker, Jolene, Nearly Lost You (with Warren Haynes)

Warren Haynes (solo): Gone Too Long, Ballerina, Forevermore

Clutch: Slaughter, Strive, The Mob Goes Wild, Cypress Grove, ADQIT, Barbarella, The Regulator, Electric Worry, Nosferatu, Lord Of This World (Black Sabbath) (with Warren Haynes)

Karina Rykman: Joyride, Reboot, Dirty South (with Warren Haynes), City Kids (with John Medeski), Elevator

Jason Bonham’s Led Zeppelin Evening: Immigrant Song, Good Times Bad Times, What Is and What Should Never Be, Ramble On, When The Levee Breaks, Whole Lotta Love (with Warren Haynes)

Cody Jasper: Who Are You, Higher Power, House Of The Rising Sun (Traditional)

Billy F. Gibbons with Warren Haynes: Waiting For The Bus, Jesus Left Chicago, Beer Drinkers & Hell Raisers, Blue Jean Blues, Sharp Dressed Man, La Grange

Joe Russo, George Porter Jr., John Medeski, Bill Evans, Datrian Johnson: Just Kissed My Baby, Do Your Thing (Isaac Hayes), Thrill Is Gone (B.B. King) (with Warren Haynes), 2525 (Zager and Evans), Asheville Blues

Gov’t Mule: After The Storm, Peace I Need, River On Flows, Stoop So Low (with Jason Bonham), Feel Like Making Love (Bad Company) (with Slash, Myles Kennedy, Jason Bonham), You Shook Me All Night Long (AC/DC) (with Slash, Myles Kennedy, Jason Bonham), Starlight (with Slash, Myles Kennedy), Hunger Strike (Temple Of The Dog) (with Slash, Myles Kennedy) > Dear My Fantasy (Traffic) (with Slash, Myles Kennedy), Simple Man (Lynyrd Skynyrd) (with Slash, Myles Kennedy, Billy F. Gibbons), When Doves Cry (Prince) (with George Porter Jr.) > Beautifully Broken (with George Porter Jr.), Freeway Jam (Jeff Beck) (with Mike Barnes, Bill Evans, John Medeski), Soulshine (with Slash, Myles Kennedy, John Medeski, Mike Barnes, Bill Evans)

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