To the uninitiated, the Warren Haynes Christmas Jam (or Xmas Jam) is a celebration of the Blues guitar solo; and ode to the Les Paul guitar and all of the humbucker-fueled trappings that come with it. The concerts are less an exercise in a band showcasing its hits, and more of the musicians interacting in a long musical dialogue. The Warren Haynes Pre-Jam, held at the Orange Peel on Friday, Dec. 14, was all of these things, but it was also else; a surprising love letter to the great soul music of yesteryear with a few wrinkles added in.
The evening started early after a quick acoustic set from Warren Haynes, with the sounds of Athens, Ga.-based Dead Confederate, a band that eschewed the typical feel good Southern boogie sound and instead dipped its cup into a swirling black mass of psychedelia, mixed in with a bit of ‘90s rock stomp. It was a pleasant surprise to those who made it out to the rather early 6 p.m. start time.
Dead Confederate’s set ended in a blistering swirl of feedback and cymbals crashing, which was in stark contrast to Jason Isbell and his band The 400 Unit’s soft beginnings. Isbell, a veteran from previous Xmas Jams with his former band, The Drive by Truckers, seemed lose, relaxed and was greeted with familiar smiles and applause from concert goers. He delivered a short set that was big on showcasing his distinct voice as a songwriter, and the crowd was appreciative.
The first revelation of the evening came in the rather diminutive form of Grace Potter and her band, The Nocturnals. Throughout her set, Potter slithered across the stage and belted out her rhythm-heavy songs. It was a short introduction, but to most members of the audience it probably felt like it was the beginning of a long love affair.
Another high point of the night was an appearance by Stockholm Syndrome, featuring Dave Schools of Widespread Panic. The band’s rapport with the audience was a sight to behold, and it almost made up for the rather bland, vanilla music that they played. While the audience danced and basked in the glory of musical mediocrity, a patron of the bar was overheard saying nonchalantly “Of all the bands I’ve ever heard, they are one of them.”
But the biggest surprise of the evening came in the form of Mike Farris, who was joined by an all-star group of backing musicians for a gospel-and-soul-drenched jam session. With Farris’ stellar voice acting as a guide for the musicians, audiences were treated to a showcase of familiar songs performed with an incredible intensity. At the end of the performance, a star was born, if even for just on night on the stage in a tiny town in North Carolina.
Immediately following Farris was Peter Frampton, who even without his trademark talk box displayed a blistering set that was further amplified (no pun intended) by his guitar pyrotechnics. Joining Frampton onstage was Warren Haynes, and together they conducted a guitar duel for the ages on some of Frampton’s classic material from his former band, Humble Pie, as well as some classic soul covers from Junior Walker and the All-Stars.
The audience was breathless by the end of Frampton’s set, but Haynes’ Government Mule was still to come, playing a rousing set brought the thunder home to the Orange Peel that evening.
On a night where the music stood a chance of walking a perilous tightrope between being overly self indulgent and magical, Haynes and company showed taste, resolve and an unexpected amount of soul. After the concert, and looking forward to the main event the following evening, one couldn’t help but to feel like it was Christmas Dinner already: we were stuffed from the appetizers, but we couldn’t wait for the main course later on.
— Jason Bugg