Front Row Focus Festival Review: Warren Haynes Christmas Jam 28

via Front Row Focus

There’s a sort of unofficial kick-off to the holiday season in western North Carolina, at least for die-hard music lovers in these parts.  It’s an annual musical extravaganza hosted by renowned guitarist and Asheville native, Warren Haynes, equally beloved as longtime guitarist with The Allman Brothers Band, founding member of the band Gov't Mule, and now most generous and dedicated coordinator of this blow-out charity event, Christmas Jam.  All proceeds from this musical extravaganza, which involves pre-parties all weekend at venues around town, go to the Asheville Area Habitat for Humanity.

The 28th Christmas Jam was held at the US Cellular Center in Asheville, North Carolina, on December 10th. Holly Bowling, a classically trained pianist known for reinterpreting the tunes of Phish and Grateful Dead as fully developed classical pieces, served as the closest thing to a master of ceremonies for the evening. She was the first to perform and then continued to entertain the delighted crowd between sets with her tributes to jam-band luminaries.

With no introduction needed, Haynes got up next, making the first of his multiple appearances by sharing solo renditions of “The Real Thing,” and “And It Stoned Me.” From there, the evening brought an impressive showcase of incredibly-talented, highly-respected musical masters, collaborating in various configurations, well into the wee hours of the morning.  

Following Haynes’s solo intro, Multiple-Grammy nominee, Jamey Johnson, joined the winner of 27 Grammy awards, Alison Krauss. The two are frequent collaborators and one can see why; his deep husky voice the perfect complement to her angelic soprano. Their set featured a collection of country/bluegrass ballads including “High Cost of Living,” and “When You Say Nothing At All.”  These two singing the old-school romantic number to each other, “Make the World Go Away,” was both a highlight and quite timely a plea for some relief in what some perceive to be dark times.

Next up, Funky Meters’ bassist, George Porter, Jr., joined forces with Eric Krasno, Terence Higgins, Branford Marsalis and John Medeski to kick things into high gear with a super fun set of mostly Meters hits. This session ultimately pulled in the gifted young guitarist, Marcus King, just 20 years old and quickly becoming a Jam regular and favorite. Fulfilling Porter’s promise to keep it “disgustingly funky,” a smoking rendition of “Just Kissed My Baby” in which King and Porter traded lyrics, ensured that anyone in the venue who wasn’t already moving and grooving got up on their feet.

“Sugaree” ushered in a moment the audience was anxiously anticipating, as Bob Weir, most recognized as founding member of the Grateful Dead, joined Porter’s group to deafening cheers from the crowd.  Milking this number for all it’s worth, in typical jam fashion, there was time and space to bring a bluesy, sexy vibe to the classic tune. With Weir still on stage, this session wrapped up with “Iko Iko,” the old New Orleans tune that became a standard number in the Dead’s repertoire.  

Michael McDonald began his set with some commentary referencing to the challenging political season we’d just survived, with a call for equality and peace which segued perfectly into “Marching on the Freedom Highway” by the Staples Singers. Higgins and Medeski stayed for this set and Audley Freed and Don Was joined in. Doobie Brothers favorites covered included, “I Keep Forgettin’,” “What A Fool Believes” and “Taking It To the Streets.”

Up next, Weir led a group composed of guitarist Steve Kimock, drummer Duane Trucks, Was, Haynes, Bowling and Marsalis. Weir sang “Easy to Slip” on acoustic guitar before dueting with Krauss on “Peggy-O”, the two of them on the same mic, to make a tender song even more touching. A couple of Weir’s Blue Mountain numbers ultimately led to several Dead favorites, including “He’s Gone,” “Eyes Of The World,” “Truckin’” and “Ripple.”

In honor of the 40th anniversary of The Last Waltz (The Band’s 1976 farewell concert in San Francisco) Haynes was joined by  Medeski, McDonald, Was, Higgins, Johnson, Krauss and a horn section, on renditions of “Up On Cripple Creek,” “The Shape I’m In,” “Georgia On My Mind,” “Ophelia” and “It Makes No Difference.” Weir guested on “The Weight” and former Muddy Waters guitarist Bob Margolin (a participant in the actual Last Waltz) contributed to “Mannish Boy” and “Further On Up the Road,” along with harmonica player Smoky Greenwell. “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” brought an end to this powerful set.

Following Christmas Jam tradition, Warren Haynes, along with Gov’t Mule, closed out the evening, at which point everyone who’d performed over the course of the event made an appearance and additional musicians including Rocky Lindsley, Mike Barnes, Jeff Sipe, Paul Riddle, and Tony Coleman joined in. Those hearty souls still in the house at nearly 3:00 AM, rocked out to “Mountain Jam” before reluctantly calling it a night