After dealing with a contentious, mentally draining election and plenty of tragedy in 2012, including the inexplicable and ever-looming events in Connecticut a day prior, the capacity crowd at Warren Haynes' 24th Christmas Jam seemed to need the marathon Saturday night of music more than ever. Appropriately, there was a surplus of emotion, spiritual energy, and camaraderie in the venerable old Asheville Civic Center (now U.S. Cellular Center) as a lineup featuring plenty of soul, funk, blues, and gospel - the most healing types of modern music - mourned, healed, and celebrated as one with the audience.
After a relatively low amount of guest sit-ins in 2011, the event returned to form this year. There was collaboration at every turn. The set-list became an article unto itself during the first hour of the show and grew into a monster by the end of the eight-hour affair. The Jam can unfold in countless ways, with a limitless amount of song possibilities, so it's engaging enough just to see what Haynes has concocted. Though the increasingly rare appearance by String Cheese Incident drew the most attention from the heavily partisan crowd, the entire night proved noteworthy, if not always riveting, and large portions were indicative of the unique magic the Christmas Jam fosters.
The first hour of music, for instance, set a standard that wouldn't be met for another few hours. Warren Haynes and The Blind Boys of Alabama offered stirring takes on "People Get Ready" and "Amazing Grace" with just five voices and a couple of guitars. Haynes' first stroke of setlist genius allowed "Soulshine" to glimmer brighter than ever in the reflection of the Blind Boys' otherworldly harmonies, proving that even the most tired material can be invigorated. Keyboardist Nigel Hall notched the first guest appearance of the night on "Soulshine" and the set's boisterous finale found saxophonists Ron Holloway and Karl Denson, along with Trombone Shorty, honking away in true New Orleans style to end "John the Revelator."
The New Orleans vibe continued and would surface several times throughout the night. After a handful of typically hard-rocking funk tunes from Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue, they were joined first by the Blind Boys for a rousing "Down By The Riverside" and then by Haynes, who added guitar to the band's signature showstopper "Do To Me". This was late night Jazz Fest quality stuff, happening instead at Haynes' cozy hometown benefit show.
The "surprise" act of the show was long-rumored and confirmed 24 hours before the doors opened, but their presence certainly added to the door buster atmosphere outside the arena. The Avett Brothers could sell out the venue on their own, so their addition was quite remarkable. Their set was devoid of guests and fairly straightforward, which tempered the voodoo that had been manifesting during the first two acts, but they did notably offer the live debut of "Life" from their latest album The Carpenter and a heartfelt rendition of "I'll Be Home for Christmas".
The cool down continued during the first part of Sheryl Crow's set, which was a paint-by-numbers run through radio staples like "Steve McQueen", "A Change" and "All I Wanna Do", but business quickly picked up as Haynes and Trombone Shorty joined in for a gorgeous take on "Can't Find My Way Home". Shorty's eloquent solo added a weighty feeling to the song's somber midsection, and the glorious outro sealed the song as one of the highlights of the night. Haynes hung around to spice up the set-closing "Run Run Rudolph" and Crow's "If It Makes You Happy", which offered a jubilant moment of cheesiness via a chorus of female voices from all reaches of the arena.
The entirety of the crowd, it seemed, gathered in one extremely excited mass for the String Cheese Incident set, and the jam veterans rose to the occasion during their first show since July. Immediately plunging into one of their signature intoxicating grooves during "Colorado Bluebird Sky", the band subsequently welcomed some of the most interesting guests of the evening. New Orleans guitar slinger Anders Osborne joined in during the climax of "Joyful Sound" and steered the ensemble through an energetic version of "Junco Partner", a song quite closely associated with the New Orleans lifestyle.
Perhaps the biggest surprise was the appearance of percussion legend and southern "out" music icon Count M'Butu, who joined in on the new SCI song "Can't Wait Another Day", and SCI set up for the finale of the set with a run through "Rivertrance", "Song in My Head", and "Desert Dawn" before Denson appeared to add sax to the sexy sounds of "Rosie". Haynes, the "host with the mostest" as Michael Kang dubbed him, joined in with some welcome slide guitar during "Outside/Inside", and the capacity of the stage was tested as M'Butu, Nigel Hall, Denson, and Haynes helped form a ten-piece team to tackle a wild, set-closing "Quinn the Eskimo".
Six hours after he first welcomed the audience, Warren Haynes took the stage with his band and coyly asked "you ready to have some fun?" The rapidly-tiring crowd followed Haynes like a beacon, trusting him to orchestrate a fitting climax, and that he did. The set featured a load of soulful fun like "Tear Me Down" and Stevie Wonder's "I Wish", the latter of which introduced yet another new face to the stage - Rob Ingraham of The Revivalists, who had played at the previous day's festivities. He and Denson handled the horn duties on "I Wish" and Denson, the evening's busiest player, contributed to two more mighty mileposts of the show: A sublime cover of Steely Dan's "Pretzel Logic" that somehow incorporated a drum solo and indulgent jazz jam session, and the Haynes original "On A Real Lonely Night", which opened up into the finest jam of a jam-laden event. Nigel Hall and Denson got the funky, free-flowing improvisation started and Haynes began to interject with his sharp guitar, creating a most memorable instrumental moment.
The set was focused on significant covers. Hendrix was well-represented; beside the complete cover of "Spanish Castle Magic" with "Third Stone from the Sun" teases, Warren quoted a bit of "Voodoo Chile" during the aforementioned jam-of-the-night. The first nod to the current state of mind in the USA came in the form of Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come", which included a positively supernatural vocal performance from Haynes and Alecia Chakour.
Before the finale, Warren excused himself for ending the joyous occasion on a somber note and then initiated a musical healing session with a cavalcade of guests like Dr. Dan Matrazzo, M'Butu, Mike Barnes, Christmas Jam staple Artimus Pyle, and many more. Together, with much of the crowd standing in rapt silence or singing along, they collaborated on an unrehearsed, unabashedly heartfelt take on John Lennon’s "Imagine". It was inspiring, sobering, and thought-provoking, especially after such an exhausting two-day roller coaster ride of emotion and music. When The Staple Singers' "I'll Take You There" emerged in the middle of "Imagine", to form a symbolic musical gesture of hope, there was nary a dry eye or a frown in the newly-painted arena. The old building on Haywood Street reflected the love and light of the Christmas jam more vividly than ever this year.