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.
Do anything long enough, and well, and you reach some pretty impressive milestones. This year is the 30th Anniversary of the Warren Haynes Christmas Jam, which began with a few old friends in a bar with a few guitars and no expectations back in 1988, and over three decades, became an anchor on the annual music calendar, attracting some of the best-known musicians in our scene and in the world to play for Habitat For Humanity and holiday good cheer.
Like its 25th anniversary installment, Christmas Jam has expanded to two nights this year for the 30th, set for this weekend, December 7 – 8 in Asheville, North Carolina. It’ll feature, among many other sure highlights, Dave Grohl, Jim James, Eric Church, Mike Gordon, Marco Benevento, Grace Potter and of course, two rounds of Gov’t Mule, including a reprise of the band’s “Dark Side Of The Mule” Pink Floyd concept.
Haynes — who still somehow finds time for more extracurricular sit-ins than most working musicians have shows booked — checked in to share some of his favorite memories and look ahead to 2019.
JAMBASE: Congratulations on celebrating 30 years of the Christmas Jam! What do you remember about the very first Christmas Jam in 1988?
WARREN HAYNES: Yeah, the first one was really just an idea we had to get a bunch of local musicians together who were all close friends but that were all traveling on the road and didn’t get to see each other enough. We decided to put a jam together where we could all hang out and play music at the one time of year that was the time everyone seemed to be home. It really was no more than that.
We raised a small amount of money, and at the end of the day just decided to donate it to charity, and then we did it again the next year. Over time it started seeming like something we could expand upon. I forget how many years went by before I stumbled on working with Habitat For Humanity, but once we started working with Habitat, that just sort of took off.
AMBASE: How do you preserve that intimacy even as the event continues to gain renown? You could probably sell it out in larger venues.
WH: I think that the spirit of the event itself kind of brings its own intimacy. No matter who the musicians are that are performing, and now that it’s become a national and even international event, no matter how big the personalities are that are there, they’re all there for the right reason and with the right spirit. The music that gets made reflects that spirit and the intent. A lot of beautiful music gets made by people collaborating for the first time — they’ve literally just met. I think we like that because we’re reminded of why started making music in the first place. That’s a part of it that has nothing to do with business or careers — the feeling we all had predates all of that.
JAMBASE: Has the process of pulling the Christmas Jam lineup together changed much in recent years?
WH: Maybe a little, though it’s pretty similar. I have a running list of people I have relationships with that have expressed interest in doing it when the time is right. That list keeps growing, as I meet new people and form new relationships, but it also shrinks because we don’t want to keep asking the same people to come year after year. There are a handful of people I feel comfortable inviting every year, but for the most part, we want to make it new and different. We start making phone calls in like March or April, reaching out to people just to check in, and knowing full well that everyone’s schedule is going to change a lot.
JAMBASE: This year’s lineup has a lot of folks you’ve played with in various capacities — Jim James, Grace Potter, Mike Gordon, Joe Bonamassa — but do you know everyone? Have you played with Eric Church, for example?
WH: We have performed together on stage once, I believe. And he’s a fellow North Carolinian. We were both inducted into the North Carolina Hall Of Fame the same year, and we kind of got to know each other over the last few years. I reached out to him — I think when we played together it was at a stop of the Outlaw Music Festival tour a few years ago in Raleigh — and he was quick to respond very generously.
JAMBASE: Do you and Dave Grohl play much together? I know he’s sat in with the Mule before and I think many of our regular readers would be familiar with the story of you, Dave’s mom, and the tour bus during 9/11.
WH: We see each other and play together every now and then, but it’s not often. And I’m really excited he’s going to be there this year. Speaking of it, it looks like his mom is going to be there too. You know, we were planning to play together this fall because oddly enough, the Mule played 9/11 this year in L.A. and he was going to come down to the show and his mom was going to come down to the show too and we were all going to reconnect for the first time in quite a while. He wasn’t feeling good so it didn’t happen, but during that whole communication is where we got to talking about Christmas Jam.
JAMBASE: It sounds like Dave is bringing a band focused on this “Play” concept he announced earlier this year. Are you part of that band?
WH: No, he’s got a cast of people he’s bringing with him. I’m really curious to check it out.
JAMBASE: Will you and he play together at Christmas Jam?
WH: I would imagine, but we haven’t talked about it yet. There’s a lot of collaboration that will usually end up getting decided and happening that day.
JAMBASE: It seems like that’s still the name of the game with how the show goes. I remember last year at Christmas Jam you played well-received segments as a duo with Trey Anastasio and also with Holly Bowling. They didn’t seem really pre-planned.
WH: Yeah, sometimes we will put it together a few days prior, but a lot of that stuff does come together last minute.
JAMBASE: I wanted to ask you about some of the longtime Christmas Jam musicians who don’t get as much ink but have been part of the fabric of this event for what seems like forever. Mike Barnes, for example — he goes way back.
WH: Mike was at the first Christmas Jam. He’s one of my oldest friends and someone that I grew up playing with — we learned how to play together. He’s a brilliant guitar player, and there’s a lot of great musicians from Asheville — especially guitar players, for whatever reason — who are like a little network or a little family, and you can hear when we play the ways in which we all kind of influenced each other. We learned from our heroes and the people who we were listening to on records, but we also learned from each other, all playing together and sharing musical information. Mike’s one of the people who influenced me a lot.
JAMBASE: I don’t recall if he goes back to the first Christmas Jam, but Kevn Kinney is another long-timer, correct?
WH: Kevn Kinney and Edwin McCain, who I actually got off the phone with 10 minutes ago as a matter of fact, the two of them were very instrumental in helping bring Christmas Jam from a local event, to a regional event, and later to a national event.
I remember I had gone down to Charleston to be part of an event Edwin was doing called America Street. He had invited me, and Kevn was there, and Darius Rucker and the guys from Hootie & the Blowfish and it was just this beautiful charity show. It really opened my eyes to how Christmas Jam could grow.
This was a long time ago, but I invited Edwin and Kevn to be a part of the Christmas Jam that year and they agreed and we ended up playing a handful of shows together, and that’s how it wound up that they became staples of future Christmas Jams. It was really people like those two, and Allen Woody, and Dave Schools, and Derek Trucks who made themselves available for Christmas Jam a lot. Not every year, but many years, and became part of the Christmas Jam family, and helped make it a national event.
JAMBASE: You mentioned your list of Christmas Jam potentials. Who else is on it? I know you’ve mentioned Neil Young before.
WH: I’ve never thought of him for Christmas Jam before, Neil’s actually someone I answer when people ask me who I haven’t played with that I’d like to. I’d love to have him for Christmas Jam, he’s welcome anytime, but I haven’t reached out to him on that so far.
JAMBASE: So who is on the list?
WH: Well, I think I would keep that list private for the moment, but Bonnie Raitt I’ve reached out to several times and she’s expressed interest and one of these days we’ll make it work. I try to be sensitive, because for a lot of musicians, that time period is such a sensitive family time period, it’s one of the rare times when many of us are home from the road. You feel guilty if you’re imposing on people’s family time.
JAMBASE: Well, we’re always excited to see how you keep varying the lineup, it’s a perennial favorite on the calendar. Warren, turning to other recent adventures and speaking of calendar staples, Gov’t Mule hosted its annual Mule-O-Ween a few weeks ago. Whose idea was it to do Black Sabbath?
WH: I think it was my idea based on the last few years of kicking around ideas. It’s something we chat about quite frequently and then keep a running list of what might be cool to do in the future. I specifically was into the idea of doing the Paranoid album. That was the one that hit me the hardest. I was the right age when that album came out, and it made a big, big impact on me. It’s still my favorite Black Sabbath record. After that one, my tastes kind of turned a corner and went somewhere else and I didn’t really listen to the later records.
JAMBASE: Did a lot of rehearsal go into that one for Gov’t Mule?
WH: Yeah, a fair amount. It took a lot of learning because we also added the four-song encore of other Black Sabbath songs. What was cool was that with a couple of exceptions — “Solitude” and “Planet Caravan” — [Gov’t Mule’s] Danny [Louis] played guitar all night. It was a fun chance to be a two-guitar band, in a similar way to what we did in Amsterdam covering Free last year.
JAMBASE: Gov’t Mule had another full 2018, do you expect to be as busy with Mule in 2019?
WH: I think so, I think 2019 is going to be a big year for us. We’re gearing up to go back to Europe and we’re going to release our live DVD that we recorded at the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester [in April 2018]. Everybody’s in a good place — the band is sounding great.
JAMBASE: Are you working on new material as well?
WH: A little bit, yeah. The fun part right now has been diving into a lot of the bonus material from the deluxe version of Revolution Come … Revolution Go. A couple of those songs we just pulled out for the first time, and there are two or three of them we haven’t played yet. There are ideas floating around for an upcoming Mule release, but we’re not in a hurry. I’ve been writing a lot on my own, too. I’m sure in the near future we’ll have more to share.
JAMBASE: The Revolution Come … Revolution Go songs have really opened up over playing them so much and seem like Mule staples at this point, especially “Thorns of Life,” the title track and a few others.
WH: Those two you mentioned are really fun to play live, so is “Dark Was The Night Cold Was The Ground.” The ones that stretch out a bit are changing all the time — the title track is a really fun one to explore. We had two versions of that, one where in the middle Danny plays trombone and one where Danny plays organ, and we kind of bounce back and forth with that at will when we play it live. So the arrangements are loosening up, and we’re also excited to see some of the more concise songs open up. Those tend to take a little longer.
We’re also finding new ways of opening up some of the older songs. It’s a lot of fun for us to take jams that we discover and insert them into the middle of old tunes.
JAMBASE: What’s a recent example of that?
WH: Well, there’s one thing we’ve been doing that we’re just tinkering with now, but it’s the Freddie Hubbard song “Red Clay,” which is a jazz instrumental, and we’ve been sticking that into the middle of “Game Face.” The tempos match, but they’re extremely different from each other, so each time we try it we tinker more and get a little closer to discovering what it should sound like.
JAMBASE: While I still have you I of course wanted to bring up some recent sit-ins. You were out with Bob Weir & Wolf Bros at the Capitol Theater a few weeks ago — of course you know him, and Don Was, and Jay [Lane] and have played with them already, but that’s an unusual format for Bob.
WH: I really enjoyed that a lot — I loved hearing them in that format, the trio. It was really fun for us to reconnect, that night was my first time hearing Wolf Bros.
JAMBASE: How did you fit in to a situation like that? It’s a sparer sound in a trio format like that so I’m curious how you approached it.
WH: Bob had mentioned to me beforehand that he looks at it like it’s a jazz trio. So I thought, OK, that’s cool, I’ll play a jazz body guitar and take a jazzier approach in my own playing. Then, when I was watching the first set from the side of the stage, I was thinking about how I might fit in. You always want to find some unique way to add to it but not detract from it, so that helped, sort of looking at like a jazz quartet, and to really feel what Bob was doing there.
JAMBASE: How about some other recent sit-ins? You’re out there maybe not as much as you used to be but, man, you still seem ubiquitous.
WH: Sitting in with the Tedeschi Trucks Band at the Beacon was really fun. I ended up on stage for almost an hour. Those guys are family, of course, so anytime we play together it’s special.
JAMBASE: And I think we saw old buddy Larry McCray sneak in for a Mule encore toward the end of the fall tour?
WH: Yeah, I’ve known him for so long. He was the first person to record “Soulshine.” You know, Larry is one day older than I am. We have a special bond and have since the day we met, which was a really long time ago. I think he’s an amazing singer and player, and any time we get to play together it’s always last minute, so it’s the same small pool of songs. One of those is “Soulshine,” which is my song, and it’s also his song. At some point we’re going to have a chance to sit down and rehearse a few other tunes together, we just haven’t yet.
JAMBASE: Coming full circle — who are you most excited to sit-in with at Christmas Jam? If you’ll tell me…
WH: [laughs] Yeah, I won’t really know until after. You know when you were going through the list earlier, I have played with pretty much everyone on that list, so I’m really curious to see what collaborations come out of it, and not just with myself. The Christmas Jam spirit in part is people playing together who have never played together before. That’s what I get most excited about — to see things that have never happened before.
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