The 29th annual Christmas Jam, a classic holiday tradition in Asheville hosted by Grammy award-winning musician Warren Haynes always brings together a great mix of up-and-coming new artists along with a few well-known talents for one long, long night of live music and collaborations. While the unexpected winter weather thwarted the Pre-Jam that usually takes place at The Orange Peel on Friday night, the roads were cleared and sidewalks salted just in time for the Jam to go on as expected Saturday night. Despite the several inches of snow that fell the day before with more expected that evening, it wasn’t the first time the winter event was hit with a curve ball from Mother Nature and it most definitely won’t be the last.
As the sold-out crowd filed into the auditorium, solo pianist Holly Bowling warmed up the stage with familiar instrumental tunes such as “Hallelujah” and The Grateful Dead’s “Morning Dew.” Warren Haynes himself opened up the event by playing a soft and sweet rendition of The Allman Brothers’ “Melissa” alongside new face Jake Shimbakuro who accompanied him on the ukulele. Shimabakuro stayed on stage playing a few songs solo, and completely blew the crowd away shredding on his now amplified ukulele when he covered The Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” He officially introduced himself greeting the audience with Mele Kalikimaka, or how they say Merry Christmas in his home state of Hawaii. This wasn’t the last we would see of Shimakuro, making an appearance back on stage much later in the evening with Haynes and Ann Wilson (Heart) with a tribute to Chris Cornell covering Audioslave’s “I Am the Highway.”
Nashville singer-songwriter Margo Price graced the stage in a festive red dress, giving a special shout out to all the ladies in the crowd before diving into a song off her latest album, All American Made. She described a wild night spent blind drunk hanging out on the porch with her friends when speaking about her popular song “I Put a Hurtin’ on the Bottle” from her debut album which seemed like an appropriate song to play for the evening. Overall, she kept to a setlist of her old-timey Roadhouse Country sound before passing the torch to Blackberry Smoke who brought the classic Southern Rock vibes with their guest slide-guitarist Benji Shanks, who has toured/recorded with Gov’t Mule, The Allman Brothers, and The Black Crowes.
The Avett Brothers paid homage to their North Carolina roots, and bluegrass hero by pickin’ out an old Doc Watson tune “Blue Ridge Mountain Blues” before diving into staple originals like “Laundry Room” and “Paranoia in B Flat Major” that really got the crowd moving. Joined later in the set by Haynes for the aptly timed Christmas song, Merle Haggard’s “If We Make It Through December.”
Trey Anastasio, front man of jam band Phish, played a set with his Classic TAB band. With their first time on stage together since 2008, almost 10 years ago, they closed with their familiar “First Tube.” However, it was the much anticipated yet unannounced collaboration between Anastasio and Haynes that really set the crowd into a frenzy with all phones in the air to record “Miss You” and a second performance of ABB’s “Melissa.”
What really took the cake as the most memorable collaboration of the evening was the Les Bros. The members present on Saturday included: Warren Haynes, Marc Quiñones, Lamar Williams Jr., Bruce Katz, Paul Riddle and Mule bassist Jorgen Carlsson. They filled the stage despite the absence of original ABB members Jaimoe and Jack Pearson. There was a rotation of guest guitarists throughout the set from Mike Barnes, to Charlie Starr from Blackberry Smoke, to the amazingly talented 14-year-old Broadway star from the Tony-winning production School of Rock the Musical Brandon “Taz” Niederauer. Finally, Haynes’ own mentee, Marcus King came out to join the group on guitar for an old ABB favorite, “Whipping Post” that rocked the stage and transitioned into The Marcus King band’s own set. The set included an entire horn section for their songs “Jealous Man,” “Rita Is Gone,” and the bluesy-jazz classic of “Nobody Knows When You’re Down and Out.”
The final set to close out an incredible 9 hours of non-stop live music was Gov’t Mule playing with Ann Wilson, very reminiscent of the show they put on at Virginia’s Lockn’ Festival in late August this year. This was only their second collaboration to date and they once again covered Led Zeppelin favorites “Black Dog” and “Immigrant Song” with Ann Wilson ripping through the songs with her powerful voice. In the wee hours of the night around 3 or 4 a.m. the weary and exhausted concertgoers eventually wandered out of the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium. Carefully climbing down the quiet sloped streets of Asheville, now fully blanketed with ice and snow, blissfully wondering what surprises next year’s 30th annual Christmas Jam might have in store.