via Glide Magazine
There was tangible excitement around the 28th iteration of the Christmas Jam that hadn’t been felt since the astounding 25th anniversary blowout in 2013. The chilly weather in Asheville, NC signaled the true start of winter in the region, but even without that motivation, people seemed more anxious than ever to get inside the US Cellular Center and spend 8 hours experiencing the always-satisfying show. Considering the individual musicians, the 2016 Jam will be remembered as one of the most impressive lineups in the event’s long and legendary existence – the announcement of Warren Haynes, Bob Weir, Michael McDonald, Jamey Johnson, Alison Krauss, Branford Marsalis, Don Was, Steve Kimock, John Medeski, Terrence Higgins, Eric Krasno, Jeff Sipe, Marcus King, and more stoked anticipation to a frenzy in the weeks leading up to the big night.
Continuing one of the Jam’s more recent traditions, live music filled the void between sets. This year, Holly Bowling played four “tweener” sets while also participating in other parts of the show. Her solo piano interpretations have garnered a lot of attention lately, and she filled the set breaks with riveting takes on Phish (“A Song I Heard The Ocean Sing”, “Taste”, “The Inlaw Josie Wales”) and Grateful Dead (“Terrapin”, “Crazy Fingers”, The Other One”), often providing interesting segues between songs from both bands. After Haynes’ ceremonial two-song acoustic set – which, as always, included “And It Stoned Me” – Jamey Johnson and Alison Krauss offered enchanting harmonies on their generational country megahits “When You Say Nothing At All” and “In Color”, along with a smattering of Johnson’s solo material and a few more ballads, including “Make The World Go Away”.
Whenever George Porter Jr. steps on stage, a party atmosphere pervades the venue. This certainly held true at the Christmas Jam. That the set featured the first real danceable, funky moments of the night only served to intensify its effect; it felt like the real beginning of the Jam. Porter was joined by Medeski, Krasno, Was, Higgins, and Marsalis, and proved his normal boisterous self on opener “How Much Time” and “He Bite Me (The Dragon)”, while Marcus King joined in to add guitar and vocals to “Just Kissed My Baby”, and Bob Weir appeared – eventually – to ignite the night with an extended “Sugaree” and a jubilant “Iko Iko” set closer.
Michael McDonald, who will be touring with Haynes, Was, Medeski, Johnson, and Higgins next year on The Last Waltz tribute tour, smoothly performed a short set of his most recognizable songs. “What A Fool Believes”, “I Keep Forgettin’” (with Marsalis) and “Takin’ It to the Streets” (with Krasno) kept the upbeat feeling alive, and the arena was crackling with energy by the time Bob Weir stepped out for his set. Weir presided over a long and varied set, opening with a solo acoustic version of Little Feat’s “Easy to Slip, welcoming Krauss for “Peggy-O”, and directing one of the most memorable segments in Christmas Jam history. Marsalis and Haynes joined Weir’s band (Kimock, Was, Duane Trucks, Bowling) for a luxurious “He’s Gone”, followed by a monstrous “Eyes of the World”, a song in which Marsalis notably thrives. His solos were sheer perfection, and led the band to fantastic heights for over 15 minutes before they settled down and slid into “Truckin’” and ended the set with “Ripple”.
The aforementioned “Last Waltz Band” finally got their turn around midnight, and McDonald and Johnson handled most of the vocal duties. Leading off with “Up On Cripple Creek” and making quick work of “The Shape I’m In”, “Stage Fright”, and “Georgia On My Mind”, the band and their considerable horn section were joined by Weir and Krauss for a stirring version of “The Weight”. Weir hilariously butchered his verse and promptly called himself out. A late highlight was Krauss’ appearance on “Helpless”, the Neil Young masterpiece so inextricably associated with the concert film. The set took a bluesy turn as guitarist Bob Margolin and harmonica legend Smoky Greenwell added their stamp to “Mannish Boy” and “Further on Up the Road”, then closed on a big “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” singalong.
Any Gov’t Mule set at the Christmas Jam is bound to be a sprawling, jam-filled affair, and this edition was doubly so. Mule drummer Matt Abts had a family emergency, so a litany of drummers stepped up to fill in. Rocky Lindsley handled “Mule” and “32/20 Blues”, the latter of which featured Marcus King and Smoky Greenwell in their natural environment, trading notes like such things are scarce. Jeff Sipe then took over drum duties on “Sco-Mule”, and Marsalis also joined in for more jam-mongering fun. It really is convenient for Carolina music fans to have such a saxophonist residing nearby, and lately he’s been unable to resist a jam. Finally, completing this true “Mule and Friends” set, Duane Trucks and Paul Riddle combined to provide layered dual drummer beats for a 25-minute run through Allman Brothers Band touchstones “Dreams” and “Mountain Jam”.
There were a few sound issues throughout the night, and the sense of organized chaos that sometimes pervades the Christmas Jam was intermittently present. But overall, the 28th version of Warren Haynes’ favorite holiday party was yet another rousing success, another feather in the cap of a singular event that helps define a genre, a season, and a city.