Warren Haynes hasn’t shied away from putting together varied lineups for his annual Christmas Jam benefit concerts but he really took the diversity to a new level for the event’s 30th installment. The first night of the Habitat For Humanity fundraiser took place at the U.S. Cellular Center in Asheville, North Carolina on Friday as a winter storm was speeding its way to the area. While the lineup for the evening ran the gamut from the country of Jamey Johnson to the avant-groove of Marco Benevento to the freak-improv of Mike Gordon to the classic-rock of Gov’t Mule, all of the music had one important thing in common: it was great.
Haynes kicked off the action with a solo acoustic “Company Man,” a song he wrote about his father. Warren was then joined by Ray Sisk who was part of the first Christmas Jam way back in 1988. The host asked Sisk to perform “King Of Country Music” with him and when Haynes calls you’ve got to accept the charges. “King Of Country Music” documents a dream Sisk had about meeting Johnny Cash that literally came on the night the “Man In Black” died. Ray awoke from the dream to find out Cash had passed. The pair finished their short acoustic set with a Sisk original Warren recorded for his Ashes & Dust album, “Glory Road.”
Marco Benevento took the stage next with his band featuring bassist Karina Rykman and drummer Dave Butler. The trio presented the seven-song “The Story Of Fred Suite,” which was the B-side of Benevento’s 2016 album of the same name. Marco then dug into his back catalog for “Greenpoint” before dueting with Rykman on a cover of Butthole Surfers’ “Pepper” to close.
One of the many amazing aspects of the Christmas Jam is that there usually isn’t much pause in the action. The music keeps coming for more than seven hours. A portion of the stage is reserved for “tweener” sets that hosts performances while equipment on the main part of the stage is swapped out. Christmas Jam veteran Audley Freed teamed with My Morning Jacket drummer Patrick Hallahan, keyboardist Jen Gunderman and bassist Robert Kearns for the first of these “tweener” sets. The quartet performed an instrumental “Winter Wonderland” before welcoming Joanne Shaw Taylor for her own “In The Mood.” Next, Kevn Kinney and Jimmy Vivino joined in for Drivin’ N Cryin’s “Honeysuckle Blue” and “Straight To Hell.” Finally, Jamey Johnson led the group through Merle Haggard’s “Workingman Blues.”
Jamey Johnson moved quickly from the sidestage to the main stage to front his own band. Johnson led the brassy, countryfied ensemble on such numbers as “Keeping Up With The Jonesin’,” “Back To Caroline” and “You Should Have Seen It In Color.” The set concluded with a string of covers that included The Band’s “Ophelia,” Haggard’s “I’ll Just Stay Here And Drink,” Jerry Reed’s “Eastbound And Down” and blues standard “It Hurts Me Too.” Freed contributed to “I’ll Just Stay Here And Drink” while Haynes helped out on “It Hurts Me Too.”
Asheville’s own Tyler Ramsey was up next on the side portion of the stage. The former Band of Horses multi-instrumentalist opened with a solo “Long Dream” before the rest of his quartet joined in for “The Valley Wind” and “The Nightbird” off Tyler’s 2011 album The Valley Wind. Ramsey pulled out “Country Teen” from his Band Of Horses days and then welcomed Warren for a rendition of “These Days” by Jackson Browne as the set’s finale. Haynes had technical difficulties with his guitar so he focused on singing.
Phish bassist Mike Gordon was up next on the main stage. Mike, guitarist Scott Murawski, keyboardist Robert Walter, drummer John Kimock and percussionist Craig Myers went with “Say Something” to start. The five-piece then performed “Whirlwind” off 2017’s OGOGO. Gordon noted it had been around 12 years (he was close, it was 13) since he had been part of “this great event amongst so many friends old and new” before launching into “Peel.” Both “Whirlwind” and “Peel” were opened up with a pair of jams that explored vastly different territory. What the jams did have in common is that they were in odd time signatures and weren’t led by any one particular member.
”Victim” was less open-ended and served as a nice launching point for a crowd-pleasing cover of Aerosmith’s “Sweet Emotion.” The quintet ended their set with OGOGO’s “Pendulum.” Gordon and Murawski moved over to the side stage to perform what Mike joked were songs they played together as kids on the back porch. First up was “Wild And Blue,” a song penned by John Scott Sherill for country musician John Anderson. The pair then performed Madi Diaz’s “Do You Still Drink About Me.” Diaz sat-in with Mike’s band a few times in recent years. Scott and Mike ended their brief set with their original “Crazy Sometimes.” Both musicians used acoustic guitars throughout the three-song interlude.
The concert continued after a few minutes back on the side stage with another acoustic number from Haynes. Warren treated the adoring crowd to the tender “Captured” from Gov’t Mule’s 2013 album Shout!. Jim James emerged to duet with the guitarist. The My Morning Jacket frontman sang “Captured” on the bonus version of Shout! featuring different artists leading each track from the original LP. Haynes then brought out Grace Potter for a reprise of their popular rendition of Fleetwood Mac’s “Gold Dust Woman.” The pair have performed a show-stopping electric version at past festivals including Christmas Jam. Friday’s “Gold Dust Woman” may have been acoustic but was emotional and spine-tingling thanks in large part to the harmonies between James, Potter and Haynes.
At this point the festivities were running five minutes behind the plans, which is a miracle in itself considering how many different acts had already performed. Potter helped gain back some time as her band lit into the opening “Medicine” mere seconds after the final note of “Gold Dust Woman.” The Vermont native crossed from the side stage to the main stage just in time to sing the first lyric. Grace swapped between organ and acoustic guitar for “Empty Heart” off her solo 2015 LP Midnight. The band slowed down the pace for “Stars” from Potter’s Nocturnals days before launching into the powerful “The Lion The Beast The Beat.” Grace then led the group on “Paris (Ooh La La)” with portions of “Good Times Bad Times” spread throughout and contributions from saxophonist Ron Holloway. Potter and her band all moved over to the drum set to bang away while Holloway blew. Grace Potter said farewell with a cover of Bob Dylan & The Band’s “I Shall Be Released.”
The evening’s final “tweener” set started with guitarist Jimmy Vivino and vocalist Maris. Jimmy backed Maris on “Shallow” from A Star Is Born and then brought out other members of the house band for Dolly Parton’s “Jolene.” Gunderman had a turn in the spotlight for Neil Young’s “Don’t Let It Bring You Down” before Robert Kearns led a rousing rendition of Doug Sahm’s “I’m Not That Cat Anymore” that wound its way into “Run Run Rudolph.”
Haynes provided the main event as Gov’t Mule honored the music of Pink Floyd with a “Dark Side Of The Mule” set. The core band was augmented by saxophonist Ron Holloway at points as well as multi-instrumentalist Torbjörn “T-Bone” Andersson and vocalists Machan Taylor, Mini Carlsson and Sophia Ramos. Warren started with a solo version of “Pigs On The Wing Part One” before the rest of the ensemble joined in on a choice selection of songs from throughout Pink Floyd’s heyday. An emotional high point came during “Us And Them” when Jim James helped out on vocals. The set concluded with a run of “One Of The These Days” > “Fearless” > “Echoes Part One” > “Comfortably Numb.” Warren took a moment at the start of the encore to thank all involved and then the seven-plus hour concert concluded with “Wish You Were Here.” A webcast of tonight’s concert is available via nugs.tv.