Report: 2011 Warren Haynes Xmas Jam

 

Gov’t Mule, Phil Lesh
& Friends, Los Lobos, Bela Fleck, Jackie Greene, Kevin Kinney Planet of the
Abts and plenty others heated up Asheville on a chilly pair of nights, Dec. 9
and 10. Watch video clips to accompany the text, below.

 

By Fred Mills

 

The musical symbolism was as obvious as the calendar date
was proximate: for the 23rd annual Warren Haynes Christmas Jam, held
this past weekend in Asheville,
NC, the spirit of the Beatles
clung reassuringly to the festivities like a freshly-washed Snuggie. Or, to be
more precise, the spirit of John Lennon, whose death anniversary arrived just
one day prior, December 8, and whose legacy message of peace and love (and
definitely no shortage of good will towards men…) clearly found its way into
the Jam’s musical aesthetic as well as the overall vibe of the Jam

 

No less than four Lennon-penned tunes dotted setlists at the
pre-Jam (Friday, Dec. 9) and the Jam (Dec. 10): “Don’t Let Me Down,” “Dear
Prudence,” “She Said She Said” and “I’ve Got A Feeling” (and before anyone
points out that the latter is often largely credited to Paul McCartney, the Let It Be number is actually a
combination of one song by Paul and two by John). It couldn’t possibly be a
coincidence, particularly when armed with the knowledge that Christmas Jam
founder Haynes is a massive Beatles and Lennon fan, and plenty of the other
performers this year – among them, Jackie Greene, Phil Lesh of the Grateful
Dead, Kevn Kinney and the members of Los Lobos – have gone on record in the
past as claiming similar allegiance.

 

And, per my comment above about Lennon’s “legacy message,”
knowing that the Christmas Jam is a benefit for the regional chapter of Habitat For
Humanity
and that all the musicians who play the Jam are donating their
talents (along with scores of other people who also volunteer their time and
services to help bring the event off smoothly), well… actions do speak louder
than words. This was my 10th Christmas Jam, having attended
regularly since 2002, and I’m continuously impressed by the level of commitment
put forth by the organizers, artists and volunteers. The cumulative total
raised thus far over the years for Habitat was closing in on $1 million prior
to the final tally this weekend, so I think that dollar amount speaks volumes
as well.

 

Let’s get to the music. To view a gallery of images shot by
Dino Perrucci from both the Jam and the pre-Jam go here on the BLURT website.

 

***

 

The 2011 Warren
Haynes Christmas Jam pre-Jam, The Orange Peel, Dec. 9

 

With local radio station WNCW-FM (www.wncw.org) broadcasting live, the pre-Jam at
the Orange Peel kicked off promptly at 6pm with Haynes, as always, doing a couple of acoustic numbers (one of them,
“River’s Gonna Rise,” is a standout cut from his soul/funk-infused solo record
from earlier this year, Man In Motion,
which he also did in electric form at the 2010 Christmas Jam with the full
Warren Haynes Band). Following that came the first surprise – and to everyone in
attendance, it a huge one – in the form of Planet
Of The Abts
, not previously announced by the Jam organizers, a power trio
formed by Gov’t Mule drummer Matt Abts along with Mule bassist Jorgen Carlsson
and Carlsson’s guitar-slinging Swedish buddy T-Bone Andersson. They served up a
mostly instrumental hi-nrg set laden with deep grooves (and, on one song, Mule
keyboardist Danny Louis on trombone) and no shortage of hard rock flourishes –
one song suggested a prog/fusion take on Ted Nugent’s “Stranglehold,” if you
can dig that – with occasional vocals shared by Abts (!) and Andersson.
Speaking to Abts the following evening I learned that the group had only formed
a few months earlier and had just a handful of gigs under its belt to date –
and that he was very pleased at the response from the pre-Jam crowd. “That was
a ton of fun,” he enthused, grinning broadly. “We hope to keep doing it.”

 

Following POTA was Kevn
Kinney
who brought his Christmas Jamboree to the Orange Peel stage
(highlight: an elegant “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”-styled “Here Come The
Regulars,” with Johnny Irion & Sarah Lee Guthrie on co-vocals); as is
Kinney’s tradition, he was also hosting a similar gathering during the day on
Friday and Saturday at a local pub. This gently segued into Jackie Greene & Friends, a
powerhouse ensemble steered by Greene and featuring Carlsson, Louis, Mike
Barnes, Jeff Chimenti and Jay Russo (the latter two would also serve as
keyboardist and drummer for Phil Lesh & Friends). His take on Sonny Boy
Williamson’s “Eyesight to the Blind” was sharp and sassy, but it was when
Haynes came out to join the group for the aforementioned “Don’t Let Me Down,”
the two guitarists swapping both vocals and lead guitar licks, that provided
the Jam weekend’s first big mass singalong from the crowd. The looks of
pleasure that Haynes and Green exchanged were priceless. And the Bela Fleck/Jeff Sipe team-up for a
rollicking prog/nÇ�-grass set (it culminated in “The Ballad of Jed Clampett”)
kept patrons constantly in motion as the evening wound its way to the halfway
point – or so everyone thought.

 

Typically, the pre-Jam at the Orange Peel lasts until about
11pm, a sensible hour when you consider that these same musicians will probably
be playing the next night until 3 or 4 in the morning. And that’s how it looked,
scheduling-wise, for this pre-Jam when Los
Lobos
launched into a 7-song mini-set. It was highlighted by a
Haynes-augmented tribute to the late blues guitarist Hubert Sumlin courtesy a
pair of songs made popular by Sumlin’s boss Howlin’ Wolf, “Killing Floor” and
“300 Pounds of Joy” (Lobos singer Cesar Rojas was literally growling like Wolf during the latter), guitarist
David Hidalgo engaged in some primal dueling with Haynes. With the entire
packed house now wired to the gills, Gov’t
Mule
took over, serving up first the low, grinding blooze of signature song
“Trane.” Several songs later, the hour nearing 11, what had become the
worst-kept secret of the night thanks to a lightning round of excited text
messages zipping through the audience walked onstage to ear-splitting applause:
erstwhile Grateful Dead bassist Phil
Lesh
(and longtime Haynes musical collaborator), who wasn’t specifically
expected until the next evening. Haynes looked at the musicians, which now
included keyboardist Chimenti plus Lobos’ Hidalgo, and with a nod they launched into a
soulful, delightfully psychedelic Traffic’s “Dear Mr. Fantasy.”

 

That would have been treat enough, but as I said to myself
as I glanced at my watch, “This gonna keep going…” And sure enough, Jackie
Greene,  and Jay Russo came out to join
Haynes, Lesh and Chimenti – making the ensemble officially “Phil Lesh &
Friends” – for an intense but celebratory Dead-centric jam on “New Speedway
Boogie,” Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” and “Franklin’s Tower,” which on
paper is technically only 3 songs but by the clock lasted over 45 minutes. From
the rapturous expressions on many of the faces in the crowd, not to mention a
few pockets of ecstatic twirling along the perimeters, the room was more like
an old-time tent revival nearing its peak than a rock concert.

 

And whether in the audience at the Orange Peel or at home
listening to the radio – or even if taking to Twitter to tweet
about it all in real time
– it’s likely that no one minded at all being
kept up past their planned bed time. As one fan, apparently sitting at home and
taking in the WNCW-FM broadcast, posted in perfectly deadpan fashion to the
PhilZone.org message board shortly after the show, “Good shit for a warm-up.”

 

You got that right.

 

***

 

 

 

 

 

The 23rd Annual Christmas Jam, Asheville
Civic Center, Dec. 10

 

It’s only 5:30 the next afternoon, but outside the Civic Center
there’s already at least a thousand people lined up and milling around awaiting
entry to the 7000+ capacity arena doors to open. Backstage, with the Christmas
Jam scheduled to start in a couple of hours, musicians toting guitar cases (or
in the instance of virtuoso fiddler Casey Dresden, who’s performing with Bela
Fleck’s ensemble this weekend, a violin case) are hustling around, some of them
racing up the steps to the arena floor for quick soundcheck. Others are just
hanging out, chatting, and greeting familiar faces. I spot Warren Haynes across
the room, deep in conversation with someone; very soon he’ll be at center
stage, greeting the sold-out Civic Center with a swaying, soul-infused cover of
Van Morrison’s “And It Stoned Me.” The highlights for the evening, which
extended to 3am, would be many. Among them…

 

*Kevn Kinney &
The Christmas Family Band
(Jackie Greene on keys, guitarists Audley Freed
and Mike Barnes, bassist Robert Kearns, drummer Brad Pemberton. A hard-to-imagine,
yet brilliant-in-execution, extended segue from Pink Floyd’s “Breathe” through
Elton John’s “Rocket Man” into the Beatles’ “I’ve Got A Feeling.” If you’re
counting, that makes the second Fab Four song of the weekend, and synched up with
the other two covers, it takes on a deeply emotional, oddly wistful quality
that actually has some concertgoers dabbing at their eyes.

 

 

 

 

*Bela Fleck/Jeff Sipe (joining the banjoist and drummer were fiddler Driessen, guitarist Jimmy
Herring, sax fiend Bill Evans, bassist Taylor Lee): Following a solo improv
from Fleck the entire ensemble blazes brightly, Herring and Fleck in particular
hitting the g-spot for “bliss” around the time of “Soulgrass” that spills off
the stage and onto the arena floor in the proverbial performer-audience
transfer of energy.

 

 

 

 

*Los Lobos: By
now the Civic Center appears to be as packed as at
anytime during previous years’ Jams, with even the cordoned-off VIP section
full of dancing, bouncing revelers. As the Lobos get cranked up, security staff
find it necessary to clear some buffer zones on the left and right sides of the
arena floor, and it’s to their credit that even some of the wilder-eyed
concertgoers – there were plenty I observed, including one twirling gal dressed
as a Victorian-era Mrs. Claus who at one point flopped down like a rag doll –
are handled respectfully, leading to no noticeable confrontations or incidents.
Tonight, Lobos rages more like punk rockers than Americana icons – “Don’t Worry Baby,” natch –
and when Haynes joins them for a medley of “Mona” and “Bertha,” the crowd
explodes.

 

 

 

*Phil Lesh &
Friends:
That Lobos-powered Grateful Dead cover proved a highly effective
setup for what is probably the most anticipated set of the night, and Lesh plus
his Friends (Haynes, Greene, Chimenti, Russo) do not disappoint over of course
of nearly two hours’ worth of classic Dead songs – plus the Beatles’ “She Said
She Said,” dropped into the middle of “Dark Star” and sung by Haynes. Also in
the mix is Jimmy Herring (Widespread Panic, Allman Brothers, The Dead, etc.), greeted
like a conquering hero by the crowd and lending his licks to several numbers,
notably an elastic, throbbing “The Other One.” Surveying the scene from the
Civic Center balcony, I’m struck at how hardly an inch of the arena floor
between the stage and the soundboard is visible; it’s that crammed with bodies, and those bodies are clustered in
mini-pockets given to frenzied surges of activity, as if an electric current
was being run through the house and shocking groups of people randomly.

 

 

 

 

*Gov’t Mule: A/k/a Haynes, Abts, Carlsson and Louis. The Mule is doing its first show in about
six months, having taken the bulk of 2011 off while Haynes promoted his solo
release. It’s now about 1:30am, and the band was supposed to go on at 12:25
based on the setlist times posted backstage, but hey, that’s Christmas Jam Time
we seem to be on tonight, and no one seems to care. There’s a funny moment
right when the band starts: most of the people who have been lounging around in
the artist area backstage and downstairs in the Civic Center now make a beeline
upstairs so they can plant themselves in the special viewing section set aside
for the artists, friends and family members. And while it may have been some
time since the Mule played, there’s no doubt Haynes & Co. have come loaded
for bear, starting with a lengthy brace of originals (among them a luminous
“Beautifully Broken” and groove-monster “Thorazine Shuffle”).

 

 

 

Then, with the arrival of Phil Lesh and Bill Evans, the
patented Mule covers treatment begins. A moody, bluesy jam slowly coalesces
into a hypnotic, pulsing, nearly 18-minute version of Traffic classic “The Low
Spark of High-Heeled Boys” (Evans in particular channeling the late Chris Wood
with his sax lines). Next, after Haynes welcomes Jimmy Herring back to the
stage, Louis starts in on a strangely familiar guitar riff on his keyboards,
the rest of the band gradually chiming in on what turns out to be “Dear
Prudence” (Jam weekend Beatles tune #4, kids). It’s almost like the entire Civic Center
lets out a collective sigh, and at points during the White Album nugget you can see nearly every mouth in the venue open
and singing along.

 

 

 

 

 Some time later, as
the Mule wraps things up with a more-than-appropriate (yet even to these Mule-primed
ears, completely unexpected) 15-minute cover of the Doors’ “When the Music’s Over,” the
23rd annual Christmas Jam comes to a close. There’s nothing but
smiles on the faces of patrons exiting the arena – here and there, a few dilated-pupils
twirlers don’t seem to want to let the moment fade just yet, but their friends
gently guide them outside into the cold and all is right in the world.

 

 

 

 

[Photo by Dino
Perrucci
; see more of his Jam and pre-Jam images at our photo gallery]

 

[With the exception of “When the Music’s Over,” the above videos were posted to YouTube by rohbear4; check out his YouTube video channel, which includes plenty
more clips from the Jam]

 

 

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