Photos By Arnold Goodman
First and foremost, Asheville, North Carolina is vacationer’s paradise, even in the bleak weeks leading up to Christmas. The surrounding area is full of natural wonders: hiking trails, kayaking streams and the town itself, which, with a deceptively small population of 75,000, is a shopper’s paradise. Everywhere you go you see “unchain AVL” signs, referring to the stubborn resistance to national retailers which everyone in Asheville seems to share. If you’re looking for Walmart, McDonald’s, Olive Garden or a dollar store, you have to go out of city center for it, with the result that restaurants are largely locally sourced, with an on-premise owner. This doesn’t mean that you’re limited to corn on the cob and barbecue, although there is some of that too. We ate at a wonderful tapas-style Spanish restaurant, Cúrate, where we shared upwards of 20 dishes, and finished every single one of them. Added bonuses aside, we didn’t come down to Asheville for the food, we came for the music, and we found that in abundance as well.
Christmas Jam, which celebrated its 27th year here, raises more money for Habitat for Humanity than any other source, and you might remember that former President Jimmy Carter has been working on Habitat’s behalf for years… pretty stiff competition.
It all started in the bar, with native son Warren Haynes raising money for the cause, and, thanks to his guidance and hard work, the Jam has mushroomed through a series of larger and larger venues until it now sells out the biggest venue in Asheville, the 7,500 seat U.S. Cellular Center. A tenth the size of Austin, Memphis or nearby Nashville, Asheville’s music scene compares favorably on a per-capita basis, and events pre- and post-Jam pop up in the many downtown clubs. Thursday, the local talent gets together at the Orange Peel, a popular largish open-floor club, which on Friday hosts the official pre-Jam party for VIP ticketholders, and where actual Christmas Jam performers have dropped in—Haynes himself always does. All of this, of course, is in anticipation of the main event on Saturday.
First the quantity, then on to the quality; The Jam started at 6:45 PM, and wound down at 2:30 AM, after performances by seven national touring acts, an excellent local band and a brief solo performance by Warren Haynes– nine distinctly different groups in all.
Love Canon, a ‘newgrass’ group hailing from Charlottesville, VA, started the night off with innovative interpretations of Top 40 hits and TV theme songs. They primed us with Dire Straits’ “Money for Nothing,” and moved through ZZ Top’s “Legs” and Toto’s “Africa,” among many others, bridging the downtime between acts.
Warren Haynes stepped out solo, and, armed with nothing but an acoustic guitar and his clear, passionate voice, touchingly sang George Harrison’s “Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth).” On what is arguably the biggest night of Haynes’ year, he looked remarkably relaxed and happy as he nailed the song.
Next up, Electric Hot Tuna, when boyhood pals and former Jefferson Airplane bandmates Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady cranked up the wattage. Their “99-Year Blues” turned out to be among my top three songs of the night, and it may have been one of theirs too, as Casady leapt in the air like a teenager while Kaukonen grinned devilishly through the grim lyrics.
Just before his own band went on, Bruce Hornsby gave Love Canon a Christmas treat, joining them for their version of his song, “The Way It Is.” Hornsby, whom I expected to sit behind a piano, played dulcimer to a fiddle accompaniment for his eclectic set. He started off with a playful nod to Love Canon with J. Geils’ “Centerfold,” and segued immediately to his own indictment of colonialism, “The Black Rats of London,” and treated us to cuts from his new album, Rehab Reunion, including a wonderful song, “M.I.A. in Miami.”
Tedeschi Trucks Band, arguably the highlight of the evening, gave up six superb songs on their own, and one with Haynes (“Keep On Growing,” from Derek and the Dominos). Their absolutely killer version of “With a Little Help From My Friends”—which I have heard live twice in the last six months, once by Paul McCartney and once by Ringo Starr—was epic. Susan Tedeschi’s powerful vocals have only improved over the years, and her young husband, playing guitar professionally since his teens, still has tricks tucked in his slide.
Somewhat newer on the scene, Dawes, with Duane Betts on guitar, played a good set, but Tedeschi/Trucks was a very, very hard act to follow. They led us nicely into Elmore favorite Blackberry Smoke, however, slinging Southern rock at its bluesey-est, a biker’s dream band. Slow groove “Ain’t Got the Blues” stood out in that set, and I went ballistic for a favorite tune I’ve heard done to perfection by Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams, “Deep Elem Blues.” When Haynes joined the band for a rocked-out version, we all got an early Christmas present.
At 12:30 AM, the Doobie Brothers took the stage with Elmore’s most-wanted Billy Payne (Little Feat) on keyboards. With just shy of a zillion hits in their repertoire, somehow the Doobies shaved it down to about nine tunes for their 45-minute set. (Most bands played for 30-35 minutes. Tedeschi/Trucks got 55 minutes, and Warren Haynes’ Ashes & Dust band played for a little over an hour.) The Doobies kicked it off with “Jesus Is Just All Right,” and each song burned hotter than the next.
After “Rock Me,” which would have fit in nicely in Blackberry Smoke’s set list, Doobie guitarist Patrick Simmons thanked the audience and Warren Haynes with a quick reminder of why we were all there: “Everyone should have a home that is not a cardboard box,” he reminded us. Haynes then jumped in for a few tunes, including the event-appropriate “Long Train Runnin’” (“…She lost her home and her family, and she won’t be comin’ back. Without love, where would you be right now?”). Swinging into the huge hit “China Grove,” the band finished off the set with another apropos tune, “Listen to the Music.”
In the wee hours of the morning, Haynes’ most recent (of his many) projects, the Ashes & Dust band, claimed the stage and reinvented rockgrass. A fiddler played the guitar harmonies in the Allmans’ “Jessica,” and a banjo’s dissonance cut through the familiar riffs, bumping the electricity up just enough to raise the hair on your arms. Next, from the new album Ashes & Dust, the band went for the jugular with “Is It Me or You,” a powerful new Haynes song with elemental lyrics and a great hook, as good as anything he’s done, and therefore as good as anything out there. This event is Haynes’ baby, and the night he debuted his new band in his home town, so Haynes poured everything he’s got into the evening, and it showed. “Soulshine” also stood out in an exceptional set, with the Allmans’ tune “Blue Sky” as the closer, sometime around 2:30 AM.
Amid applause and whistles, the band and a few guests came back onstage for one more tune. “I know you’ve been here a long time,” Haynes announced, “and I’ve been here even longer, so we’ll do just one more.” Though the song is associated with Garth Brooks, Haynes actually co-wrote the encore number nearly three decades ago, even before he started Christmas Jam; he certainly hit the nail on the head (pun intended) when he sent us home with “Two of a Kind (Working on a Full House).” Bravo Christmas Jam!
– Suzanne Cadgène
To donate to Habitat for Humanity, go to www.habitatforhumanity.org.