Reflecting on his 25 years of annual Christmas Jam benefit concerts, Warren Haynes says there’s been “too many highlights to list.”
But a few moments do stand out to him: witnessing bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley’s performance in 2005; watching singer Dave Mathews and saxophonist Branford Marsalis team up for the first time the following year; playing a 2008 super jam set with Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones, Michael Franti and others.
The Jam’s developed a national reputation for cultivating those kinds of rare appearances and unique collaborations, drawing fans from around the world. “Through the years, having such an amazing cast of diverse musicians and artists and bands has just been a wonderful process,” says Haynes, a Grammy-winning rocker who fronts Gov’t Mule and plays guitar in The Allman Brothers Band.
The Asheville native curates the annual Christmas Jam with the help of his wife/manager, Stefani Scamardo. It’s grown from a small concert at the now-defunct 45 Cherry nightclub into one of the city’s biggest entertainment events, held this year on Friday and Saturday, Dec. 13-14, at the U.S. Cellular Center. It even comes complete with its own namesake beer: an easygoing session ale made by Sierra Nevada and Asheville Brewing companies.
The evolution has been a natural process, says Haynes.
“When I started the Christmas Jam 25 years ago, venues were limited, the music scene itself was very limited. It’s really grown organically as the city itself has grown organically,” he notes. “Watching the whole thing grow from starting out as a local event at a small club, to this year, selling out two nights … has been amazing.”
Of course, there’s been a few hiccups along the way. There was the time a snowstorm hit, stranding some of the artists in town longer than they bargained for. And Haynes laments the night back in 1998 when Derek Trucks got his guitar stolen backstage at Be Here Now. “But thankfully,” Haynes says, “it’s remained pretty positive the entire time.”
Haynes now lives in New York. But much of his family still calls the local area home, and for the last 15 years, proceeds from the Jams have gone to the Asheville Area Habitat for Humanity, with donations topping $1.3 million. The shows, he says, are meant to celebrate Asheville’s philanthropic and artistic values.
“I think the spirit of the Christmas Jam represents Asheville in a big way: people helping each other, people being very socially conscious,” Haynes explains. “And I think the general spirit of the Asheville music scene seems to be, ‘do what’s in your heart and not try to second-guess the marketplace.’”
Keeping the spirit alive
That positive spirit is alive and well as Haynes marks the Jam’s silver anniversary with a mix of new and familiar faces, including some of the biggest names in classic rock. “It’s always important to me that we keep breaking new ground, and keep adding artists and bands that have never been before,” says Haynes. “Of course, there’s a lot of bands and artists who are somewhat staples as well. So it’s sort of a balance between the two.”
Several members of Widespread Panic have played previous jams individually over the years. But this will be the first time the Georgia rock group’s played the event as a whole. “I’m excited about that,” Haynes notes.
Legendary Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh, at 73 years old, is making an increasingly rare trek from his home in California to play the event. Performing under the Phil Lesh Quintet moniker, he’ll be joined on stage by Haynes, Jimmy Herring, Rob Barraco and John Molo, who haven’t all played together on the East Coast in 10 years.
“That’s a really special band. There’s a great chemistry between the five of us. And we love playing together - it’s really exciting to get us back together for this,” says Haynes.
After a 14-year absence, fans can also look forward to the return of Sco-Mule, a highly revered collaboration between Gov’t Mule and guitarist John Scofield. Plus, The Aquarium Rescue Unit is getting back together to play what will be only its second show since 2007.
“And since it is the anniversary, it seems appropriate to have people like Greg Allman there, who’s been many times,” Haynes says, noting that he’ll join The Allman Brothers singer for acoustic and electric sets. The lineup also includes Michael Franti, Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, Keb’ Mo’ and others.
“I’m really happy that this is coming together the way it is. But it’s still going to change in the way that there’s going to be a lot of collaborations that we don’t even know about yet,” says Haynes. “There’s going to be a lot of exploratory music at this particular Christmas Jam.”
Jamming for a cause
As the artists chart unknown musical territory onstage, Haynes says the families they’re helping through Habitat for Humanity will serve as an inspiration.
“I think the music that gets played, the music that’s made when people are playing for free or charity, is special in itself. I think it kind of takes us back to what we all started playing music for in the first place,” explains Haynes. “Somehow that translates into a very spirit-filled, unpretentious sort of playing music. Where, even though we’re playing in a huge arena to a packed house, people are still experimenting and relaxing and having fun the way they would in a small club, the way we started out.”
Video courtesy of Habitat for Humanity
The Jam is consistently the Asheville Area Habitat's largest annual contributor: Proceeds from last year’s event totaled $150,000. The money goes towards a variety of housing projects, and to date has helped 24 families become homeowners. The main road of one of Habitat’s subdivisions in West Asheville was even named Warren Haynes Drive in his honor.
“It’s a great feeling to be able to give back,” says Haynes. “One of the things I love about Habitat is that I see where the money goes: The community comes together. We see the houses built. It’s amazing. The proof is right there before you.”
For the past seven years, Habitat has also hosted fans willing to lend a hand before the concerts. This year, over the course of three days leading up to the shows, volunteers will help construct a house in Swannanoa; Haynes plans to attend a wall-raising celebration with them on Thursday, Dec. 12.
Photo courtesy of Habitat for Humanity
“We’ve got people who come to participate from all over the country” says Ariane Kjellquist, Habitat’s local communications director. “We really appreciate everyone who is involved in the Christmas Jam, from the fans to the event producers to, of course, Warren and all the musicians who perform. It’s unlike any other sponsorship that we have, and we’re just eternally grateful.”
In the years ahead, Haynes says he hopes to keep the Jam going “as long as we can keep doing good.”
“I’m enjoying being part of it - having the opportunity to do something this cool, both musically and socially,” he explains. “I think that one of the reasons it’s going bigger and stronger than ever, is because there’s a lot of people who love music for the same reasons that I do. Maybe not even the same genres, but music that comes from an unpretentious place, with all the right intent.”
For more coverage of Christmas Jam, including interviews with a variety of other performing artists, click here.