Jam-packed: Your Xpress guide to the Christmas Jam

Once a year, downtown Asheville is overtaken by Jam. This year, the Jam is bigger than ever, but its mission is still the same: To raise money for Habitat for Humanity.

Want to know more about the musicians? Looking for something to do during the day? Xpress has you covered. And when the weekend’s over, check out www.mountainx.com for Jam photos and more.

Warren Haynes: “The General”

Warren Haynes

Just after Halloween each year as the lineup for the Christmas Jam is announced, Warren Haynes prepares himself for the inevitable: the deluge of calls from the Asheville native’s long-lost friends and classmates who seemingly spring out of the woodwork. But after years of practice, Haynes has arrived at a simple solution.

“There’s no guest list, so everybody is equal,” Haynes tells Xpress.  “That way, I don’t have to decide who’s more important. Otherwise, my guest list would be a thousand people.”

Those thousand people are on to something. The annual Warren Haynes Christmas Jam, now in its 20th year, has become one of the region’s most anticipated concerts. With the Jam’s expansion into two concerts at the Asheville Civic Center and a full weekend’s worth of events (including the Jam by Day) it’s a bigger beast than ever.

In its two decades, the event has gone from a quiet jam session among friends at local clubs to a sort of benevolent Bele Chere, with all the money going to charity instead of funnel cakes.

The expansion of the Jam has created what may be the most diverse lineup yet, with music ranging from the retro country stomp of Marty Stuart to the furious alt-rock of Coheed and Cambria. That diversity is what the spirit of the Christmas Jam is all about, Haynes says.

“All of these acts have a common thread; we’re not just catering to a certain type of music fan,” Haynes says. “The real music fans we are catering to have an open mind and listen to a lot of different kinds of music.”

Whether it’s onstage with his former band The Allman Brothers, his current band Gov’t Mule, or appearing with any number of other bands, Haynes and his frenetic blues-based guitar playing are the ringmaster in this circus of solos and collaboration. It makes for a long night for the road-tested Haynes.

“It probably is the most hectic night of the year for me playing, but I’m also enjoying watching all of the other bands, artists and musicians,” Haynes says. “It goes by quicker than people think. One moment it’s 7 o’clock and the next it’s 3 a.m.”

— Jason Bugg

The Brothers Band: “The Spine”

For nearly 40 years, The Allman Brothers Band has been a rock ‘n’ roll tradition, firing off jam-happy and booty-shaking live shows around the world. But the band is also acting as a musical backbone of sorts for this year’s Christmas Jam.

Head Jammer Warren Haynes has served as the band’s lead guitarist since 1989 (with the exception of a four-year stint in the late ‘90s). But he isn’t the only guitar hero in the bunch. Guitarist Derek Trucks (nephew of The Allman Brothers Band’s drummer Butch Trucks) also has the distinction of being both a member of the band and an accomplished solo artist. 

Those common threads that link the venerable band with many of the other performers are the lifeblood of the Jam. It’s that continuity and the band’s musical dexterity—effortlessly shifting from Chicago blues to Southern boogie to country stomp—that makes The Allman Brothers rock ‘n’ roll royalty.

Forty years on, band members’ hair may be grayer (and in some places thinner), but listeners can still close their eyes when the Allmans play, and be transported back to those legendary nights at New York City’s Fillmore East where the band staked its claim as one of rock’s most explosive live acts.

— J.B.

Mike Barnes: “The Local Virtuoso”

Mike Barnes has performed with everyone from The Allmans to Joe Walsh to Jimmy Page; by day he’s a UNCA faculty member. Barnes has been a session guitarist from Nashville to Los Angeles. And his Haynes ties go way back—he went to junior high with Warren. Catch him around town with the Caribbean Cowboys, KaiZen (with Jeff Sipe) and local jazz bands.

— Rebecca Sulock

Coheed and Cambria: “The Upstarts”

Coheed and Cambria are not veterans of the Christmas Jam scene. Their four albums tell an epic tale of characters caught in an intergalactic war. The music is anything but the roots-and-blues-saturated norm for this concert. And that’s exactly why guitarist Travis Stever is excited about being at the Jam.

“I hope we can get together with a few bands,” Stever tells Xpress. “Originally it was supposed to be just [guitarist and vocalist] Claudio [Sanchez] playing acoustic, but now it’s the entire band playing. But so many musicians are there, and there are so many similar tastes. There are millions of songs that I’d love to hear.”

While the music fan in Stever is pumped about the chance to see so many performers, the musician in him sees the concert as a chance to win new fans.

“We’re going into a different territory, there are people playing from all different kinds of music, but it’s still music that is close to our hearts,” Stever says. “It’s nice that we can go play music like this and then go on tour with a band like Slipknot.”

The ability to play with an all-out metal band like Slipknot and also with the more traditional luminaries at the Christmas Jam is the very definition of the diversity that the show promises. Where else are you going to hear Travis Tritt’s tales of the common man juxtaposed with Coheed and Cambria’s epic songs from their science fiction-based concept albums?

— J.B.

Roosevelt Collier: “The Dr.”

Collier and his family band The Lee Boys carry on that sacred steel tradition and will whip listeners into a frenzy, with no reservations. Collier makes his pedal steel (emblazoned with his name and nickname “The Dr.”) sing, wringing all the holiness and howling from that difficult instrument.

— R.S.

Karl Denson: “The Boogaloo Jazzman”

Every jam needs a saxophone, and expect nothing short of soulful intensity when Denson joins in. Watch for Denson, former saxophonist for Lenny Kravitz’s band and master of his own Tiny Universe, to bring the Afrobeat in the Fela Kuti tradition. And count on hearing the organic grooviness that made Denson famous with The Greyboy Allstars.

— R.S.

Steve Earle: “The Hard Core Troubadour”

When Americana troubadour Steve Earle’s press agent explained that the singer/songwriter’s current tour (in support of last year’s Washington Square Serenade) was keeping him too busy for interviews, Xpress was disappointed. However, Earle’s schedule has him jet-setting from Europe to Australia this fall with breaks to play a Rock for Reading benefit in Chicago, the 43rd annual Peace Awards (accompanied by his wife, country singer Allison Moorer), and the Christmas Jam.

Songs from the Grammy-winning Serenade have been showing up all over, from cult HBO hit The Wire‘s opening credits to network sitcoms. The experimental album features a collaboration with Brazilian group Forro in the Dark; Earle’s recent shows include DJ Neil McDonald working turntables and adding beats.

— Alli Marshall

Robben Ford: “The Teacher”

Robben Ford toured with Joni Mitchell and George Harrison in the 1970s, and since then the four-time Grammy nominee has been all over: from branching into jazz fusion to studying Buddhism to leading international guitar clinics. Ford’s musical prowess has inspired tribute bands and a thriving online discussion group dedicated to his knowledge.

— R.S.

Ruthie Foster: “The Phenomenon”

Ruthie Foster. Photo by John Carrico.

“It’s all about energy when you’re performing live,” Texas-based singer/songwriter Ruthie Foster told Xpress earlier this year (“In Good Company,” July 16). “I get up in front of a lot of audiences who’ve never heard of me. Especially as an opener for larger acts—they have no idea who I am, but they’re willing to listen.” At the time, Foster and her band were passing through town, opening for songwriter Darrell Scott—but it was Foster’s soulful, high-energy set that stole the show.

Soon, she was back in Asheville as a headliner. Her performance blends roots, gospel, blues and reggae with an infectious passion usually reserved for tent revivals. Still touring in support of her groundswell 2007 album, The Phenomenal Ruthie Foster, the performer recently posted a bulletin on her Web site stating a new CD is in the works for early 2009. She also landed her song, “Heal Yourself,” on the soundtrack for Tyler Perry’s The Family That Preys.

— A.M.

Michael Franti: “The Shaman”

If the mere mention of hip-hop conjures up certain images, then Michael Franti, front man of San Francisco-based hip-hop collective Spearhead, bucks most of those preconceived notions. The vegetarian, footwear-eschewing, yoga-practicing, peace-promoting musician has been crafting positive (and often politically charged) lyrics for two decades. He’s also has a hand in filmmaking: His documentary, I Know I’m Not Alone, recounts a trip to war-torn Iraq, Palestine and Israel, where he jammed on the street and with local musicians. 

Spearhead’s just-released All the Rebel Rockers was recorded in Kingston, Jamaica, under the guidance of reggae producers Sly and Robbie, and has a distinct rocksteady flavor. However, Franti’s Christmas Jam set (accompanied by fellow yogi and songwriter Jay Bowman) promises to be a stripped-down, acoustic performance. Yet with only a guitar and his voice, Franti is capable of generating all the kinetic excitement of a full band.

— A.M.

Audley Freed: “The Sideman”

Raleigh resident and former Black Crowes guitarist Audley Freed can chalk up these achievements on his resume: He backed the Dixie Chicks and Peter Frampton on guitar on their most recent world tours, and earlier this year, he appeared in animated form on The Simpsons. His ‘90s rock band Cry of Love still has a cult following.

— R.S.

J.J. Grey: “The Orange Blossom”

Grey’s online bio compares him to Florida’s state flower: Like the orange blossom, “musician J.J. Grey’s songs are fascinating, beautiful and complex. Both are products of the same ground: the rich, fertile and ancient soil of the Sunshine State.”

Still, if you want to get down with more than Grey’s gritty voice and Southern-style licks, check out some of his faves, as listed on his Web site. Best live albums? Otis Redding’s Good to me: Live at the Whiskey A-Go-Go 1967 Vol. 2, and Bill Withers’ Live at Carnegie Hall.

For films, Grey recommends Victor Nuñez and Errol Morris. He’s even a reader, and partial to historical fiction set in his native Florida: The Creek by J.T. Glisson, and A Childhood: the Biography of a Place by Harry Crews, are among his picks.

— R.S.

Ben Harper: “The Soul Man”

Ben Harper

When pro-surfer-turned-Jack Johnson pal Donavon Frankenreiter passed through Asheville this fall, he bestowed warm fuzzies aplenty on his buddy (and collaborator) Ben Harper. “Whenever I see Ben Harper or … any of those guys it’s like a family thing,” he told Xpress.

Harper, whose grandparents owned the California-based Folk Music Center Museum, took his musical cues from blues-legend Robert Johnson and folk-noir artist Leonard Cohen alike. The singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist enjoys far greater stardom in Europe than in his home country, but frequent U.S. touring has brought him through Asheville on several occasions. After fronting his longtime band, the Innocent Criminals, Harper formed Relentless7 this year and plans to release an album with the new outfit in May.

— A.M.

Patterson Hood: “The Chameleon”

If there’s one thing that the Christmas Jam is all about, it’s diversity. Drive-By Truckers singer/guitarist Patterson Hood recognizes this, but prefers to speak about it with a different analogy.

“Sometimes you want chocolate, sometimes peanut butter; sometimes you want someone to get their chocolate in your peanut butter,” Hood tells Xpress. “I could use the Mounds/Almond Joy analogy if you prefer.”

Hood plays ragged-glory odes to the South with the Drive-By Truckers, but for the Christmas Jam, look for Hood to showcase his softer side.

“Playing big loud rock with Drive-By Truckers is certainly my top priority and one of the absolute joys of my life,” Hood says. “That said, some songs call for a quieter or more personal treatment.”

The shift from all-out rock to more thoughtful approach may be a bit jarring to some long-time DBT fans who are more than ready for the band’s reckless brand of rock ‘n’ roll, but Hood is optimistic about how he’ll fare as a quiet voice in a sea of rock.

“Fortunately, I write both kinds of songs and some songs can take on a different or separate life both ways, so it’s all good for me,” he says. “I love the intimate interaction that can occur on a good night when I’m playing quieter in front of a listening audience, and there is nothing more fun that having the arsenal of sonic assault weapons that DBT provides me with.”

— J.B.

Robert Kearns: “Santa’s Little Helper”

Robert Kearns the Guitarist, not to be confused with Robert Kearns the Inventor of Intermittent Windshield Wipers, played bass in the early-‘90s Raleigh rock band Cry of Love, with Audley Freed. He also played in St. Louis-based band The Bottle Rockets with Brian Henneman, who showed up on the records of seminal alt-country band Uncle Tupelo and played lead guitar on Wilco’s first album.

On Kearn’s blog, he describes the story behind his song “I Wanna Jam with Santa Claus”: “Everyone knows that Santa rocks, but nobody seems to want to talk about it. I guess nobody except Grateful Dead fans want to accept the idea of a big-bearded fat man playing the guitar.”

— R.S.

Eric Krasno: “Kraz”

Soulive guitarist Eric Krasno, the Royal Family Recording artist known as Kraz, crushed his elbow joint and bone in a high-school basketball accident. Doctors didn’t think he’d be able to play guitar anymore, he told Guitar Player magazine. But Krasno amazed his doctors and physical therapists by practicing and relearning, and the experience shaped his approach to the instrument.

“I developed a very relaxed approach using economical techniques, such as legato picking,” he told Guitar Player. “I also don’t bend my wrist much, and I use my thumb to help hold the neck, Hendrix-style. In the end, playing guitar saved my arm, and the whole experience made me focus on music as a career.”

— R.S.

Edwin McCain: “The Romantic”

Edwin McCain has come a long way from the church choir, where he got his start singing. Three years ago, McCain’s early-‘90s smash romantic ballad “I’ll Be” was voted best wedding song by more than a million Dr. Phil viewers. He co-owns OMG studios in his native Greenville, S.C. And this year he put out a record of soul covers called Nobody’s Fault But Mine.

— R.S.

Del McCoury: “The Traditionalist”

Del McCoury Band

Del McCoury and his band may be the odd men out when it comes to the blues-and-jam rich offerings of the typical Christmas Jam lineup, but the simple homespun beauty of the bluegrass group’s music cannot be denied.

The band’s music—created much like that of the pioneers of bluegrass—hearkens back to the country and gospel roots of rock ‘n’ roll. Played fast and with passion, McCoury and his four-piece backing band are some of the more revered musicians on the circuit today. In a world where bluegrass can be another glitzy marketing tactic of Nashville, the band offers an old-time sepia-toned authenticity.

Veterans of the road (and of working with Steve Earle), McCoury and company are set to dig in their heels and play their homespun music for fans new and old. Don’t be surprised if McCoury’s set is the most guest-heavy, and the biggest crowd pleaser of them all.

— J.B.

Ivan Neville: “The Maestro”

Ivan Neville’s Dumpstaphunk

This year, in a sea of blues guitar-centric musicians, the act that seems poised to steal the show is Ivan Neville’s Dumpstaphunk.  Started by Ivan Neville (son of R&B legend and Christmas Jam veteran Aaron Neville) in 2002, Dumpstaphunk hit listeners with a brand of Hammond-organ-and-bass-guitar-driven funk designed to get people up and moving. So far, it’s working.

The band has played numerous Jazz Fests and Mardi Gras festivals, and seems ready to take its hard-and-heavy brand of New Orleans infused funk to a wider audience—and to help Neville shake his stigma as just a sideman.

Neville made his name as a musician first by appearing as a session player on Rolling Stones albums and playing in Keith Richards’ backing band The X-Pensive Winos. Now Neville, with his instantly recognizable organ sound, is set for the spotlight in Dumpstaphunk.

The group’s blend of hard rock and instrumental funk seems to walk the thin line that most Jam performers do—between jam-happy live performances and polished songwriting—but there is nothing tedious about Dumpstaphunk’s excursions into improvisation. Instead, the band relies on their beast of a rhythm section that’s bound to provide the soundtrack to some of the more upbeat moments of the Christmas Jam.

— J.B.

Joan Osborne: “The Go-To Girl”

Joan Osborne

Though Joan Osborne is one of the few women in the jam scene, she’s quick to note, “It’s about the music and not about any sexual politics.” The singer, who landed on the pop charts with her 1995 major label debut, Relish adds, “Music is not an easy way to make a living, but I don’t think the jam band world in itself is forbidding to women.”

Osborne’s hit single was the distinctly pop-flavored “One of Us,” but pop selections are a definite minority in her body of work. “I tend not to think of music in these very narrow categories,” she tells Xpress. “I think in American music, in particular, the boundaries are vague.”

So moving from soul (2007’s cover-heavy Breakfast in Bed) to country (2006’s Pretty Little Stranger); from hip-hop (she contributed vocals to Spearhead’s Chocolate Supa Highway) to psychedelic rock (Osborne’s toured with the Grateful Dead and Phil Lesh and Friends) seems an organic evolution. After all, she got her start singing blues covers at open mikes.

It was during Osborne’s early years, playing jam-friendly clubs like Wetlands in New York, that she first met Warren Haynes. For years the Asheville-native rocker had extended the Christmas Jam invite to Osborne. This year, she’s finally able to fit it into her schedule—ironically, just a couple months after playing The Orange Peel, touring behind her recently released Little Wild One. That album is a return to the singer’s pop-rock platform (she assembled the same team that worked on Relish): Maybe the free-spirited vocalist is finding her way back familiar ground. After all, Christmas (jam or not) is a favorite theme.

Three years ago Osborne recorded her holiday-themed Christmas Means Love album, a mix of traditional (“Away in a Manger”) and more, um, secular (“What Do Bad Girls Get?”) songs. “I love Christmas. I get very sentimental,” Osborne reports. She says she takes her daughter to her family home in Kentucky each year where the kids receive gifts from an uncle in a Santa suit.

While Haynes’ Christmas Jam nods to the holiday, rounds of “Silent Night” are far from typical fare. Will Osborne change that? “It’s a possibility,” she laughs. “I spoke to Warren on the phone last night and he’s very open to whatever I want to do.”

— A.M.

Mickey Raphael: “The Harps Master”

Mickey Raphael

Legend has it that University of Texas football coach Darrell Royal (the school’s winningest) was wildly enthusiastic about Mickey Raphael’s harmonica playing. Royal, a big country-music fan, invited Raphael to a post-game party one night in 1973. He told Raphael to bring his harps, according to Raphael’s online bio. Who showed up at that Dallas hotel room? None other than Charley Pride and Willie Nelson, and Nelson took a shine to Raphael.

Raphael played a fireman’s benefit with Nelson, then joined the country legend at Max’s Kansas City. The two have toured together ever since.

— R.S.

Marty Stuart: “The Guardian”

If Marty Stuart sounds defensive about country music, that’s because he views it as something other than twangy guitars and rhinestone-encrusted suits—even if Stuart is a guy who owns a large and lavish collection of those suits. Over the course of the past decade, Stuart has bucked the Nashville tradition and become a walking history of country music, right down to owning a large museum of artifacts.

“I think it’s my job to make sure that the heritage of country music and the dignity of the music finds its way into the hands of the next generation,” Stuart tells Xpress.

Where the genre is heading is pure speculation, but Stuart’s gutsy and roots-driven approach has earned him fans from around the world. Stuart still values being ahead of the curve, but he wasn’t always able to get there.

“For a long time, my job was to chase a three-minute country hit, and I did well at it, and then it became a hollow victory,” he says. “So I went back to Mississippi and took a long look at the sustaining force of music, and tried to get in line with it.”

That force will certainly be on display when Stuart takes the stage at the Christmas Jam. Labels and categories may come and go, but Stuart is only concerned with one of them.

“Country music is what I do,” Stuart says. “If I die tomorrow, that’s what the headline will say: ‘Country singer Marty Stuart.’”

— J.B.

Travis Tritt: “The Wanderer”

Travis Tritt may seem an unlikely addition to the Christmas Jam roster, but that’s not the biggest surprise the country singer has up his sleeve. “Ray Charles influenced more of what comes out of my mouth than anyone else on the planet,” he tells Xpress.

It was Randy Jackson (yes, of American Idol infamy) who upon producing a duet between Tritt and soul man Sam Moore, commented that he never knew Tritt had so much blue-eyed soul. That sound bite led to Jackson signing on for Tritt’s most recent release: Last year’s distinctly R&B-flavored The Storm.

While Tritt isn’t about to commit to R&B and soul as his new direction (though, why not? Country artist Kenny Chesney has become the new Jimmy Buffett, after all), he’s also not afraid to take musical risks. “I always just go whichever way,” Tritt reveals. “It’s about playing what I feel.”

At press time, the musician had embarked on a rare acoustic tour with fellow country chart-climber Marty Stuart. Tritt muses that stepping away from the larger full band and all-electric setup “has its positives and certain things you miss.”

“You miss the high energy,” he says, “but the added bonus is the opportunity to really show off some of the musicianship and songwriting.” And being on the road with his longtime buddy Stuart is a plus: “We have tremendous chemistry.”

In fact, it was Stuart who first told Tritt about the Christmas Jam. Though Tritt—a Georgia native schooled on Southern rock as much as blues, gospel, old time and country—had previously met Warren Haynes, he’d never taken part in the annual jam.

“I did a performance in New York with the Disco Biscuits at the Jammys,” Tritt reveals. That 2005 awards show seemed to cement the country artist’s interest in jam music. “I discovered how eclectic the jam band show could be,” he says. So, when Haynes invited Tritt (who was in Asheville earlier this year to headline Bele Chere) to the Christmas Jam, the musician jumped at the chance.

And, from the way Tritt talks, he plans on taking in as much music as he’ll perform. “When I was kid listening to the radio, there weren’t all these labels on things,” he explains. “There was the opportunity to hear all these different types of music: I loved that. Music is music.”

— A.M.

Derek Trucks: “The Young Gun”

Derek Trucks may be only 29 years old, but he has a lifetime of musical experience under his belt. The guitarist has been wowing the music world since the age of 10, when he would appear as a guest of The Allman Brothers Band.

Now as a full-fledged Allmans member, a leader of his own group and occasional backing guitarist for Eric Clapton, Trucks has reestablished the notion of a guitar hero for today’s music fans. The hero isn’t necessarily someone playing fast and precisely, but rather someone who plays exactly what’s needed for a song at any given moment.

Trucks’ tasteful slide-guitar playing and feel for the instrument has not only earned him the praise of gearheads in the local music shop, but also from casual music fans. Could Trucks’ music be a callback of sorts to the halcyon days of ‘70s rock, when all a band needed was good songs, a 20-minute guitar solo and the occasional laser light show to endear themselves to audiences? While the light show may be on ice for the Christmas Jam, Trucks can cover the other two all night long.

— J.B.

Johnny Winter: “The Godfather”

If there’s a template for the slide-guitar-wielding, roadhouse-blues-playing hotshot often showcased at the Jam, Johnny Winter made it.

The guitarist, with his distinctive look and super hot playing, makes his first appearance at the Jam—and music fans wait with bated breath.

Winter’s brand of rowdy rock ‘n’ roll has slowed down over the years, replaced by sets of pure blues, but his live performances are anything but subdued. Playing from a seated position due to recent illnesses, Winter still riffs and solos with the best of them. What he lacks in physicality will more than certainly be made up for in sheer chops.

The diminutive singer may be known for his hit “Rock and Roll Hoochie Koo,” but he wields revered status in the blues community. As a producer, Winter recorded with Muddy Waters on what was the blues legend’s last album, which won numerous Grammy awards. Time may have slowed Winter down, but no other musician will carry the weight that this guitarist will.

— J.B.

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7 thoughts on “Jam-packed: Your Xpress guide to the Christmas Jam

  1. Martin Anderson

    Great guide to the upcoming big weekend, Xpressers! One other note: WNCW will be broadcasting Thursday night’s “Pre-Jam”, the 10th annual, beginning at 6pm on 88.7 and http://www.wncw.org

  2. janet

    Hey Warren or MNTX,
    How about an Asheville Inaugural party in January!
    A burning man type event to joyfully end Bush’s reign! But, please, NOT at the Orange Peel!

  3. Teleri

    Wow. You left off the most famous of the guests. The one who came the farthest. Good job. I guess Robert (that’s Plant) isn’t the only one to forget poor Jonesy’s phone number.
    For those musical illiterates out there, John Paul Jones, legendary Led Zeppelin bassist/keyboardist, joined the Christmas Jam on Saturday.

  4. Teleri- some of us “illiterates” also know that JPJ showed up on Friday as well.

    Thanks for trying to school us, however.

  5. Teleri

    You are aware that the Mountain Express did NOT put Jonesy in their article? And that those responsible for this oversite are the illiterates ~sic~ I’m referring to?
    Schooling you again – what I was trained to do…

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