Review: The 27th Annual Warren Haynes Christmas Jam

By Lea LeFebvre Photos by Joy Bruce

December 15, 2015

Christmas Jam today is a much different affair than its humble beginnings almost three decades ago. What began as a holiday reunion amongst Asheville-area musicians has since blossomed into an Asheville institution and beloved tradition for new fans and ardent veterans alike.

The first Christmas Jam dubbed “The Christmas Jam: Musician’s X-Mas Reunion,” was a homecoming of local and touring bands, spearheaded by Grammy Award-winning vocalist-songwriter and esteemed guitarist, Warren Haynes. The unpublicized event was held at the former 45 Cherry nightclub with less than 100 attendees. In 2001, Christmas Jam moved to the Asheville Civic Center and has consistently sold out the venue since, a testament to Hayne’s escalating popularity and Asheville’s burgeoning music scene. Each year, Christmas Jam’s history continues to grow, adding to the years of unforgettable performances including The Allman Brothers Band, Trey Anastasio, Coheed & Cambria, Sheryl Crow, Dave Matthews, The Avett Brothers, various members of the Grateful Dead, The Blind Boys of Alabama, String Cheese Incident, and many more. This year’s eight-hour music marathon had fans lining up as early as 10 A.M. to catch yet another sold out show.

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Warren Haynes Photo by Joy Bruce

Love Canon kicked things off with a 20-minute bluegrass joyride through the ‘80s megahits and more. They kept the crowd on their feet in-between sets with punchy, and at times humorous, renditions of Dire Straits’ “Money for Nothing,” Beastie Boys’ “Fight For Your Right [To Party], Olivia Newtown-John’s “[Let’s Get] Physical,” Toto’s “Africa,” and The Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me [Baby].”

The first surprise of the night came when Bruce Hornsby joined Love Canon on vocals for his 1986 hit, “The Way It Is,” followed by toned-down reprises of Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer” and J. Geils’ “Centerfold,” which Love Canon had both played earlier. “That’s all I need for Christmas, right there,” chuckled guitarist, Jesse Harper. Hornsby, who didn’t touch a piano or keyboard for his mellow 30-minute set, instead donned an Appalachian dulcimer and focused on stripped down, folk-oriented tunes from his forthcoming album, Rehab Reunion.

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Bruce Hornsby Photo by Joy Bruce

Following Love Canon’s opening romp, Haynes appeared for his usual solo acoustic welcome, with a beautiful and timely rendition of George Harrison’s “Give Me Love (Give Me Peace On Earth).” Hot Tuna cranked up the volume, as founding members Jack Casady and Jorma Kaukonen, joined by drummer Justin Guip, proved that age is just a number. The straightforward, but rocking performance included hits such as “Been So Long” and “99 Year Blues.”

Tedeschi Trucks Band took to the stage smokin’, giving the audience the first opportunity to get up out of their seats and boogie down. The blues-rock power couple, along with their 11-piece ensemble, pummeled through a cover-heavy set which included Leonard Cohen’s folk number “Bird on a Wire,” and an electric rendition of The Box Tops’ “The Letter.” An incontestable highlight of the night was the much-anticipated reunion of former Allman Brothers Band mates, Trucks and Haynes. A fiery guitar solo duel between the two during Derek and the Dominoes’ “Keep On Growing,” followed by The Beatles’ “With a Little Help From My Friends,” put an exclamation point on an already impressive set.

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Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi. Photo by Joy Bruce

While Indie-folk rockers, Dawes, may seem like an unconventional choice for Christmas Jam’s traditionally jam-heavy bill, the recent addition of guitarist Duane Betts, (son of Allman Brothers Band’s, Dickie Betts) gives the band a familiar air. The band reignited the arena’s energy with the catchy original, “From the Right Angle.” Following three original tunes, Dawes concluded their set with an impressive and quite unexpected band debut of Pink Floyd’s “Shine On You Crazy Diamond.”

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Duane Betts (left) and Taylor Goldsmith (right) of Dawes. Photo by Joy Bruce

Blackberry Smoke filled this year’s obligatory country-rock slot, serving up a balanced mix of originals and covers. The Southern-infused set offered a taste of backcountry, knee-slappin’ fun with Blackbery Smoke originals, ”Rock And Roll Again” and “Ain’t Got Them Blues” as well as the sole Zeppelin tune of the night, “Sleeping Dogs/Your Time Is Gonna Come.” Once again, Haynes stepped in, this time to steer the group through an emotionally-charged rendition of “Deep Elem Blues.”

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Charlie Starr of Blackberry Smoke. Photo by Joy Bruce

Well past midnight, The Doobie Brothers took the stage by storm for the coveted penultimate set of night, opening with the energetic and seasonally appropriate sing-along, “Jesus Is Just Alright.” The long-standing rock octet, with newcomer Bill Payne of Little Feat on the keys, treated the crowd to band staples such as “Rockin’ Down the Highway,” “Without Love,” “Black Water and “China Grove.” Haynes lent a helping hand on “Don’t Start Me Talkin’” and “Long Train Running,” rounding off a nostalgic Doobie classic-packed set. As crowds of weary spectators began to dissipate, Haynes wrangled his Ashes & Dust band for the night’s final hoorah.

Haynes’ Ashes & Dust band came out of the gates flying with the first Allman Brothers Band cover of the night, “Jessica.” The eclectic set featured additional Allman Brothers covers, including a especially steady and expressive “Soulshine,” as well as help from Duane Betts on his father’s “Blue Sky.” Other noteworthy covers included Little Feat’s “Skin It Back,” with help from Mike Barnes and Craig Sorrels (Bill Payne, however, was oddly absent) and Radiohead’s “Karma Police.”

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Warren Haynes Photo by Joy Bruce

As 2 A.M. approached, nineteen-year-old guitar virtuoso, Marcus King, joined the ensemble for a Garth Brooks’ “Two of a Kind,” country-tinged finale. The standard Ashes & Dust cover featured a bombastic New Orleans, down on the bayou-esque trumpet solo from Sorrells, a performance worth the price of admission alone. Once again, Christmas Jam proved to be not just a concert, but a musical marathon chock-full of sit-ins, surprises and superior musicianship. Just like cheese, wine, and Haynes’ ardent fans, Christmas Jam just keeps getting better with time.

Watch Dawes cover Pink Floyd’s “Shine On You Crazy Diamond”

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