You’d think a guitar god could get a little respect.
When Warren Haynes was a kid, his incessant six-string practicing used to piss his siblings off, his brother Brian confessed with a chuckle. Back then, the family TV set would sometimes get only one channel, and Warren’s favorite Clapton and Hendrix riffs would often drown out the lovely Lemon Sisters and the tiny-bubbles brass of The Lawrence Welk Show.
“That’s terrible, isn’t it?” Warren observed by phone recently, not really sounding all that penitent — in fact, he laughed. He was taking a break from mixing what will be, upon its scheduled release in March, the first new Allman Brothers album in nine years (in addition to Warren’s band-member duties, he is co-producing the record with Michael Barbiero).
Warren — who’s also a member of Southern boogie-groove merchants Gov’t Mule (boasting not only barn-burning guitar but the coolest band logo in rock ‘n’ roll) and Grateful Dead aftermath band Phil Lesh & Friends — is gearing up for this year’s edition of his much-loved Christmas Jam, playing host to friends and fellow musicians for a night of copacetic improvisation that typically lasts on the order of seven hours.
The Christmas Jam, now in its 14th year, has grown from a fairly organic local-musician jam at a dive-y local bar to a sellout Civic Center bash evoking Bob Dylan’s fabled Rolling Thunder tour. The full Allman Brothers Band has been known to wander onstage, unscheduled and unannounced. And The London Times recently listed the Christmas Jam among its top 20 concert events of the year.
“It’s gotten huge,” said Don Lewis, who’s played at several of the shows over the years. “It’s gotten hard to even say ‘hey’ to Warren.”
Big, yes — and maybe a little bit mythic.
Rumors of unannounced guests are rampant and often deliciously absurd, and around-town musician-spotting during show week has become its own sport — John Popper seen eating a sandwich, Phil Lesh spied in a bookstore. Plus, Christmas Jam veterans love to recall how, when the show ran over the allotted time one recent year, Warren had to decide if the musicians should keep playing, knowing it was going to cost a fat chunk of change.
And yeah, the band played on.
“We made the decision that, for a nominal amount of money, the party would be that much better,” Warren explains. “To cut it off abruptly just didn’t seem the right thing to do.”
And with myth comes ritual.
Dean Peterson, the general manager at Tops For Shoes and an old friend of the Haynes family, has made every Christmas Jam since the beginning — typically joined by his wife, Stacee, and their two sons.
“We buy four tickets,” said Dean. “It’s a family gathering.
“It’s a real highlight for the year and the holiday season for me,” he adds. “Normally, you’d have to travel to see that kind of talent; and to have Warren and all his buddies come into town and do that kind of show, it’s fabulous.”
But even at the very beginning, before all the big-name guests came onboard, the shows were special, he says.
“There was a sense of pride,” Dean explains. “You saw this fellow Ashevillean whom you’d watch grow up, and he’d worked hard at [music] and become very successful.”
The Christmas Jam began inauspiciously enough in 1989 at the now-defunct 45 Cherry and then moved, in 1992, to the also-now-defunct Be Here Now (the current home of the Asheville Comedy Club). The show next jumped to the more spacious Thomas Wolfe Auditorium in 1999; and then, last year, it sprawled into the Civic Center arena itself.
This year’s show is general admission, which bumped up the capacity by about 1,000 people compared to last year, said Marsha Hart, Civic Center event administrator.
The jump to larger venues was unavoidable, Warren reports. At the Be Here Now shows, they were having to turn away too many people.
“It became obvious that as much fun as it was to do in a small club, it had grown into an event that was raising money for charity; and if we were gonna be turning away hundreds of people, that meant thousands of dollars,” Warren explains. “It didn’t really make sense to do that.”
Last year, the Christmas Jam gave a reported $40,000 to Habitat for Humanity, the event’s chosen charity.
The jump to Thomas Wolfe seemed daunting at first; Warren’s wife, Stephani Scamardo (who’s also his manager), had to push him into thinking about the move, he says.
“I was a little scared,” he admits.
To help ensure the Christmas Jam’s continued success, more high-profile artists were invited to join the party. In addition to the Allmans, past performers have included Phil Lesh & Friends, Little Milton, Blues Traveler, The Bottle Rockets, The Derek Trucks Band and many others.
That first Thomas Wolfe show (a big chunk of which is now available on the CD Wintertime Blues) was also a personal thrill for the hometown boy, he admits.
Growing up in Asheville, Warren had seen his share of shows there — Branford Marsalis, for instance, and David Letterman, back when the late-night-TV star was still doing standup — but had never played Thomas Wolfe.
Sometimes, there’s no irony quite as sweet as success: The auditorium named for the Asheville writer who said you can’t go home again boasted, for several years, the hottest-ticket homecoming around.