A snow and ice storm in the Asheville area got the 29th Annual Warren Haynes Christmas Jam weekend off to a shaky start, with the traditional Pre-Jam event at Asheville’s Orange Peel sadly cancelled. But not even Mother Nature can put a damper on one of the most reliably great traditions in our scene, and once things got rolling on Saturday night for this year’s Christmas Jam installment, it was full speed ahead, as always, to the wee hours.
Characteristic of the best festival-style bills, Christmas Jam mixes tradition and surprise – and the sold-out throng at Asheville’s U.S. Cellular Center arena got plenty of both. Kicking off the evening was Warren Haynes himself, joined by ukulele master Jake Shimabukuro – a Christmas Jam first timer – for a gorgeous version of the Allman Brothers classic “Melissa.” Shimabukuro then took the stage solo to show off his dazzling improvisational chops, notably on his well-known cover of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”
Up next was Margo Price, who over the past two years has taken the country world by storm with a hard-edged, old school approach to musical storytelling. She can spark up a crowd plenty, and did, with a bunch of material spanning her two albums, notably a ripper of a drinking song in “Hurtin’ (On the Bottle)” and the jammed out “Paper Cowboy.”
From Margo we transitioned to Blackberry Smoke, return visitors to the Christmas Jam and another old-school-sounding approach – a band of longhairs unafraid of bombastic, twangy southern rock in the melodic traditions of Marshall Tucker and Lynyrd Skynyrd. Charlie Starr is a charismatic frontman, and led the group through Black Crowes-style boogies and rave ups like “Let It Burn,” “Free on the Wing” and the anthemic “Ain’t Much Left of Me.” Guest guitarist Benji Shanks, a staple of the Atlanta music scene, added scorching slide to “Wing” and “I Ain’t Got the Blues.”
Later soon came The Avett Brothers, performing in as a stripped-down four piece but not lacking for energy as they tackled favorites like “Blue Ridge Mountain Blues,” “Paranoia in B Flat Major” and the Doc Watson tune “Country Blues.”
A more recent Christmas Jam traditional is the so-called “tweener” sets, which feature short bursts of music between the main stage bands and serve as both a palate cleanser and attention-keeper as Christmas Jam’s ace crews break down and set up in the background. Last year’s tweener favorite Holly Bowling returned for much of the show, but this year’s Christmas Jam also had a few different tweener flavors, some of which yielded the night’s most stirring moments. Bowling paired with Shimabukuro for a shimmering jam through “Bird Song” and “The Other One,” followed by a gorgeous rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”
Later, following the Avetts set, the full Avetts foursome stuck around to join Warren Haynes for Merle Haggard’s “If We Make It Through December” and the Bob Dylan-penned “You Ain’t Goin Nowhere.” Heart vocal powerhouse Ann Wilson wasn’t due up until Gov’t Mule’s late night set, but she turned up early with Warren in another “tweener” combination for bring-the-house-down versions of Tom Petty’s “Southern Accents” and Chris Cornell’s “I Am the Highway,” the latter featuring Shimabukuro. And Warren later once again played the tweener role with Trey Anastasio, playing Trey’s “Miss You,” the Allmans’ “Midnight Rider,” and then, minus Trey and adding back Holly Bowling, a haunting “Morning Dew.”
For all the Phish headlines this year, especially around the summer’s wondrous Baker’s Dozen residency in New York, it’s also been a hugely visible 12 months for Trey himself, who concluded his busiest year of touring yet with the Trey Anastasio Band. To Christmas Jam, however, he brought the lean “Classic TAB” – Anastasio, drummer Russ Lawton, bassist Tony Markellis and keyboardist Ray Paczkowski – for a rare outing — the foursome’s first, in fact, since 2010.
Classic TAB played one of the night’s most expansive sets, favoring vintage selections like “Aqui Como Alla,” the first Trey band outing of the tune in 16 years (!), staples like “Gotta Jibboo” and “First Tube,” and more recent material like “Set Your Soul Free.” “Sand” was the standout, however, featuring mesmerizing interplay between Anastasio and Paczkowski.
Given the crushing year for Allman Brothers Band fans behind the deaths of Butch Trucks and Gregg Allman, it was certain Christmas Jam would include an Allman Brothers salute in some fashion. Les Bros – the pre-announced supergroup featuring several Allman Brothers alumni – didn’t disappoint, even without two of its announced members present.
The final lineup didn’t have Jack Pearson or Jaimoe, but did boast Warren, Marc Quinones, Bruce Katz, Lamar Williams Jr., and Gov’t Mule bassist Jorgen Carlsson serving up faithful and forcefully jammy Allmans fare. The band played warhorse after Allmans warhorse, adding Xmas Jam regular Mike Barnes for “Liz Reed,” Brandon “Taz” Niederauer and Craig Sorrels for “Southbound,” and Marcus King for “Dreams” and a slam-bang “Whipping Post.”
As the night went late– with already 8 hours of music behind it — there was one band left: Gov’t Mule, in its perennial role as Christmas Jam closer. The big question going into Mule with pre-announced guest Ann Wilson was how much of Wilson’s well-regarded sit-in with the Mule at this summer’s Lock’n festival would be replicated. The combination Mule-Ann covered much the same territory, but with a few adjustments and and no less gusto — Ann dazzling in a bright sequined dress and sinking her teeth into a run of Led Zeppelin classics, blues tunes and Janis Joplin and Heart chestnuts.
The clock read 3:00am by the time Gov’t Mule had bid adieu to Wilson and lit into “Mule,” forgoing a superjam for a leaner take on a classic original, adding Sorrels on trumpet for extra heft.
Christmas Jam doesn’t disappoint, and in its 29th year, it’s clear it has plenty of tire tread left for lovers of eclectic, jam- and collaboration-heavy bills. See you for Christmas Jam 30.
HOLLY BOWLING (pre-show)
Set: St. Stephen > Free, Proxima B, Cassidy, Little Martha
WARREN HAYNES & JAKE SHIMABUKURO
Melissa, While My Guitar Gently Weeps (Jake solo), Dragon (Jake solo)
Set: Nowhere Fast, Tennessee Song, Wild Women, Hurtin’ (On the Bottle), Learning to Lose, All American Made, Paper Cowboy
HOLLY BOWLING & JAKE SHIMABUKURO
Set: Bird Song > 6/8, Hallelujah
Set: Fire in the Hole, Let It Burn, Waiting for the Thunder, Free on the Wing (w/Benji Shanks, guitar), Ain’t Got the Blues (w/Benji Shanks, guitar), Will the Circle Be Unbroken Intro > Ain’t Much Left of Me
THE AVETT BROTHERS
Set: Blue Ridge Mountain Blues, Cigarettes, Whiskey and Wild, Wild Women, Country Blues, Laundry Room, Paranoia in B Flat, No Hard Feelings
Set: If We Make It Through December (w/The Avett Brothers), You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere (w/The Avett Brothers), Southern Accents (w/Ann Wilson), I Am the Highway (w/Ann Wilson and Jake Shimabukuro)
TREY ANASTASTIO – CLASSIC TAB
Set: Gotta Jibboo, Burn That Bridge, Everything’s Right, Aqui Como Alla, Sand, Dark and Down, Set Your Soul Free, First Tube
Set: Miss You (w/Trey Anastasio), Midnight Rider (w/Trey Anastasio), Morning Dew (w/Holly Bowling)
LES BROS (Marc Quinones, Warren Haynes, Paul Riddle, Lamar Williams Jr., Bruce Katz, Jorgen Carlsson)
Set: Ain’t Wastin’ Time No More, In Memory of Elizabeth Reed (w/Mike Barnes, guitar), Southbound (w/Mike Barnes, guitar, Brandon “Taz” Niederauer, guitar, and Craig Sorrels, trumpet), Blue Sky (w/Charlie Starr, guitar), Dreams (w/Marcus King, guitar), Whipping Post (w/Marcus King, guitar)
Set: Remember, Jealous Man (w/ Stephen Campbell), Where I’m Headed (w/Brandon “Taz” Niederauer, guitar and Stephen Campbell), Rita Is Gone (w/ Stephen Campbell, Dean Mitchell, Kyle Snuffer & Craig Sorrels), Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out (w/Craig Sorrels, trumpet, Stephen Campbell, Dean Mitchell, Kyle Snuffer, Charlie Starr)
Set: Traveling Tune, Thorns of Life, No Quarter (w/Ann Wilson, vocals), Black Dog (w/Ann Wilson, vocals), Cry Baby (w/Ann Wilson, vocals), Mother Earth (w/Ann Wilson, vocals) > You Shook Me (w/Ann Wilson, vocals), Immigrant Song (w/Ann Wilson, vocals), Magic Man (w/Ann Wilson, vocals), Mule (w/Craig Sorrels, trumpet)