Warren Haynes 27th Annual Christmas Jam – Asheville, NC, December 12, 2015
December 12 was an unseasonably warm day for Warren Haynes’ 27th Annual Christmas Jam, held each year in the Smoky Mountains enclave of Asheville, North Carolina. It was so warm, in fact, that not only were some folks in T-shirts, but many stores had coats on sale at 50% off.
The streets and sidewalks were full of locals and tourists — not hard to tell them apart — all of whom, it seemed, were in a full blossom of cheer. It was that kind of day, where that evening’s Jam may not have been the only reason for the fullness, the gaiety. There were two pre-jams that afternoon before the big one: Asheville Music Hall and the One Stop both had folks outside hoping to get a glimpse of the happenings inside. It was the natural order of things.
The Jam’s venue was built in the mid-1970s as the Asheville Civic Center. One of its first musical acts to perform there — if not the first — was Elvis Presley. The hall itself is not as large as you’d think a civic center would be; it’s more like a large high school gymnasium with a wraparound balcony. It has a very Hoosiers-esque feel to it all. This is not a bad thing. When we arrived, there was a line that encircled the Center. I soon found out why: the only seats were in the balcony. The rest, even the VIP section, was standing.
I had long anticipated the Jam, as I had only seen it before on a DVD of unknown origin that looked professionally done. Security was tight, backstage was packed, and things began on time with a fine local acoustic sextet called Love Cannon. They both opened the show and did short sets on stage left during changeovers. Accompanied at times by guest artists, Love Cannon played bluegrass versions of everything that was thrown at them. Nicely done.
Warren Haynes opened the night with “Give Me Love (Give Me Peace)” by George Harrison. This did not so much set the musical tone as it did send a message regarding what the night was all about.
Then came the highlight set of my night: Electric Hot Tuna, whom I had not seen since they days of Papa John. Their set did not disappoint — few can play the bass like Jack Cassady, and Jorma Kaukonen’s guitar slid into the spaces like that hot knife through butter. I have seen several acoustic Tunas, but this electric set was the one I had been waiting for. I don’t think they got the crowd revved up — this audience didn’t need to be any more amped than it was — but Tuna set the bar for evening.
Save for Bruce Hornsby’s set, the night turned out to be driven by very hard guitar work, much like a battle of the bands. And it worked.
Hornsby’s set was laid back, mellow even, with a quarter of subtle electric guitar, keyboard, and mandolin. He played the dulcimer, though not on his lap. He held it like a guitar, plucking it as if it were a fiddle one moment and strumming it like guitar the next. He was full of a relaxed humor that I savored long afterward.
But the band that got the crowd in its hand, and had them most energized, was the Tedeschi Trucks Band, complete with horn section. When Haynes guested, it was clearly the high point of the evening for most in the room. He and Derek Trucks traded licks, the testosterone flowed freely. Susan Tedeschi, no slouch either, played mostly lead guitar up to that point, but then turned to rhythm and basked in the glow of two old friends conversing in a language few know as well as they. In addition to her own searing guitar work, Tedeschi summoned up her inner Janis Joplin and Joe Cocker in “The Letter” and “With a Little Help From My Friends.” The magnificent horn section even threw in a few electric Miles Davis riffs from time to time. It was magical.
The crowd began to thin out a bit before Dawes took the stage, trying to follow the unfollowable. I have seen them many times, but that night they shed any pretense that they’re the Americana band who once served as Jackson Browne’s touring band, and instead turned it up to eleven. I do not know if that is because Duane Betts (son of Allman Brothers’ guitarist and cofounder Dickey Betts) is urging them to go in that direction or if the band wanted to go there and are using Betts’ talents to get them there. Whichever one it is, Dawes seem quite comfortable where they are right now.
At first, Blackberry Smoke — a Southern rock band with a bit of a softer touch — seemed like a palate cleanser for the big names to come. But not to be outdone, Haynes came out to do a fabulous “Deep Ellum Blues” along with the band. I had heard that Blackberry Smoke was a crowd favorite and after their set I understood why. They held their own.
The Doobie Brothers played their hits, and they did so with such tenacity and feeling that you never got the notion that they were just going through the motions like a nostalgia act. I had resisted seeing them in the recent past, but will no more. Bill Payne on keyboards added — for me at least — a bit of Little Feat. But the revelation was John Cowan, whose vocals and bass lines made it seem he had been an original bandmate. More than any other member of that band, he gave them a tightness and immediacy that I thought might be lacking. So much for my assumptions.
Ashes + Dust came on just a bit late and the remaining faithful were not disappointed — they got a full set from Haynes, their host and the founder of this annual night of music that benefits Habitat For Humanity. Covering the Allmans, Radiohead, Little Feat, and Phil Lesh, and encoring with Garth Brooks’ hit “Two of a Kind, Working on a Full House” (though it was cowritten by Haynes), Haynes and company embodied the best of jam philosophy and music interplay. Dawes’ Duane Betts guested, playing lead on his father’s “Blue Sky” before Haynes took over and carried the song into a velvet stratosphere. It was the highlight of an evening full of highlights.
Next year, be there. In the meantime, enjoy the pictures.