Home(s) for the holidays

The Warren Haynes Parkway.

It has sort of a nice ring to it. But to rename the Blue Ridge Parkway after the guitar-slinging philanthropist, Mayor Charles Worley would have to talk turkey with a whole bunch of federal officials — probably City Council, too. And convincing all those folks to designate a national treasure after a rock star — even one with a heart the size of Warren’s — may be out of even Worley’s reach. So instead, maybe renaming Patton Avenue Gov’t Mule Way is the ticket. (The Patton-bound, Friday-night cruisers will love it.)

There has to be some way left to thank the man properly, since Worley’s already given the Asheville-native, rock ‘n’ roll Superman the key to the city, plus named a whole day after him in the last two years respectively. And he’s running out of ideas.

“What is there left to do for Warren?” wonders Worley aloud from his offices at City Hall. “I’m not sure at this point. I’ve tried to figure it out, and if you’ve got any ideas — send them this way.”

Perhaps re-dubbing the less-saucy City/County Plaza “Soulshine Square,” or placing a bust of Warren high atop the Vance Monument, has the thankful punch the city’s looking for. (Though Worley wisely chose not to comment on the suggestion of crowning Vance with Warren’s smiling mug.)

But the most fitting tribute might well be placing a likeness of the loveable longhair and his trusty electric guitar alongside the bronzed jug band already assembled outside the Civic Center — since that band (just like everyone else under the sun) has been aching to get on the coveted Warren Haynes Christmas Jam roster since it first moved up to Thomas Wolfe Auditorium back in ’99.

After a two-year stint at the Wolfe, and in order to stop turning folks away (and thus losing an extra boost for Jam beneficiaries Habitat for Humanity), the Jam sashayed next door to the Civic Center, where it will return again Dec. 18 for this year’s 16th-annual marathon installment.

“Better than Sunshine”

The mega-concert’s dramatic recent success and worldwide acclaim mirrors the grassroots, Asheville success story of Warren himself. The Jam spent its first humble decade happily filling gone-now venues like Sonny’s Bistro, 45 Cherry and Be Here Now.

In those days, a bunch of local musicians and Warren’s other buddies just wanted to give a little back around Christmas time via beaucoups of long-winded rock ‘n’ roll jamming: the same simple philosophy that rules the modern Jam.

“In the beginning, the charities rotated. We donated money to AIDS victims, to homeless people, to Vietnam vets,” Warren tells Xpress from New York City. “But once we stumbled onto Habitat, it just really made a connection with us, and it seemed like all the money’s going where it was supposed to go.

“There are a lot of people who really believe wholeheartedly in that organization, and it just felt right, so we stayed there.”

In the three years since moving to the Civic Center, the Jam has sent approximately $220,000 of post-production proceeds Habitat’s way — with about $100K coming from last year’s Jam alone. “We’re building 14 houses this year, and we can make that move to 14 because Warren is instrumental in two of those,” notes Asheville Habitat’s executive director Lew Kraus by phone. “We don’t classify him as an individual — but as far as businesses or corporations [donating to Habitat], Warren is our biggest donor each year — hands down.”

So as long as this year’s Jam sells out (like it has every other year in recent memory), then Warren, Gov’t Mule, Little Feat, Living Colour and the rest of 2004’s New Orleans-injected, notably old-school lineup can expect to raise enough to build another pair of houses for local families — all in just two short days of work, if you count the increasingly legendary “Pre-Jam,” a private event hosted and broadcast live by WNCW the night before the main event.

As testament to the strength of this year’s lineup, WNCW morning DJ Martin Anderson wrote to Xpress in an e-mail, “Would you believe we [have] listeners from as far away as Massachusetts and New York pledging membership to the station this month to get passes [to the Pre-Jam]?”

“Better than Moonshine”

This year’s sprawling lineup again marks a subtle but welcome shift in personnel from previous years — which is the whole idea, says Warren. Varying the artists remains the heart of the thing, and “a nice challenge” at that.

A challenge, indeed — the scale for this year’s roster tips significantly in favor of legendary, with ’70s jam staples Little Feat making their first Jam appearance along with the Neville Brothers and Hot Tuna grill-man Jorma Kaukonen.

In addition, longtime Jam alumni Col. Bruce Hampton, the recently revitalized Kevn Kinney and Widespread Panic bassist Dave Schools, as well as Warren’s old buddy Edwin McCain, will all again return to play a gig that doesn’t even deliver a pay check — only a small allotment to cover travel expenses. The groundbreaking New Orleans keys player Art Neville, who will celebrate his 67th birthday Dec. 17 during the Pre-Jam, returns for the second straight year, after breaking down the 2003 installment with a Big Easy bang alongside his long-standing funk brethren in The funky Meters.

“It’s always a privilege to play this particular event that [Warren] puts on … and I’ll have to tell him it’s my birthday,” says Art with a laugh from his New Orleans home. He returns this year with his real brothers in the newly vibrant Neville Brothers, which now boasts two Neville sons in the fray, including Art’s boy, Ian. Art overcame almost-crippling back surgery in 2001 to rise again, enjoying new success with both the Neville Brothers and The Meters.

Of course, Warren enjoys the distinction of playing with everybody at each year’s Jam. As in previous years, Haynes will sandwich the night with a solo acoustic run starting things off, and then much, much later — after sitting in with virtually every other player on the premises — Haynes’ Gov’t Mule will again tackle closing duties.

In 2003, Warren joined Art Neville and The Meters on a stellar version of their classic tune “Ain’t No Use.” Asked what collaboration might be in store this year, Art responds: “It’s really whatever [Warren] feels like he wants to do, and he can do it with us. Every time it’s good. And like I said, he’s a tremendous musician — he don’t have any problems playing anything, and we don’t have any problems playing anything.

“Whatever it’s gonna be, I promise it’s gonna be good.”

Neville’s not the only old-school point guard thrilled to be involved with the Jam’s sweet-sixteen bash, either. Jorma Kaukonen, one of the most elite finger-picking guitar players on the planet, expressed his own relief in finally making it down, after several years of sending regrets due to scheduling conflicts.

“It’s an honor to be invited … I just love Warren and his whole wacky world,” says Kaukonen by phone from Hot Tuna tour in the Northeast. “We think that some of us rock guys were wacky in the ’60s — we got nothing on this guy.”

Indeed, Warren spent his year juggling time between the newly resurrected Dead, the ceaseless Allman Brothers and Gov’t Mule — effectively making him the most versatile, hardest working, and perhaps luckiest guitar mule of all time.

Gov’t Mule’s back in the saddle now with a plush, rebuilt V-8 motor of its own — thanks in part to new Mule riders Danny Louis (on keys) and bassist Andy Hess. The pair collectively filled the void left by the late Allen Woody, who founded Mule with Warren and drummer Matt Abts more than a decade ago, but died suddenly in 2000.

“Rock ‘n’ roll: It’s an arena that — for whatever reasons — has lost a lot of great people,” muses Warren about the Mule’s recent second chance, embodied in a smoking new record, Deja Voodoo, and their latest string of shows that Warren calls — without hesitation — “the best tour we’ve ever had.” He goes on to add: “We’ve all been through losing friends, losing band members, and it’s amazing what a small world it is in that context.

“There are a lot of great bands out there that are still touring right now — even though they lost some original members — and thankfully moved forward. … When Allen died, our first inclination was to call it quits. And it took a lot of encouragement from other people to get me to realize that it was more important to keep the music alive.”

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