For many music fans, attending Warren Haynes’ Christmas Jam every year is a foregone conclusion. But for this typically open-minded and fairly eclectic concertgoer, the prospect of seven-plus hours in the crowded U.S. Cellular Center, listening to bands that aren’t exactly in my regular rotation had thus far kept me elsewhere with each iteration.
The cumulative praise from Jam-faithful friends has made the prospect of attending increasingly appealing and there’s usually one group or artist that makes me think, “I could brave the jam bands and country acts to see them” — before promptly letting the opportunity pass me by. Among the notable past temptations are the Avett Brothers and Crows (of the Counting and Sheryl varieties), but once the lineups for the two-day, 30th annual shows were announced and both Dave Grohl and Jim James were set to play on the Jam’s second night, no other incentives were needed.
Though the official assignment was to cover only the Saturday, Dec. 8, happenings, I gladly accepted the promoters’ invitation to attend both nights once my press credentials were approved.
Highlights from Friday, Dec. 7, included Haynes’ opening acoustic collaborations with Ray Sisk (an alum of the first Jam, held at the now defunct 45 Cherry); Jamey Johnson’s big band expertly passing around solos with evident glee; the trio of Haynes, James and Grace Potter combining for beautiful three-part harmonies on a cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Gold Dust Woman” that sparked dreams of a full collaborative project; the entirety of Potter’s high-energy set, namely the blistering call-and-response between her Flying V guitar and guest Ron Holloway’s sax; and Haynes’ saluting the crowd while singing, “Home, home again/I like to be here when I can,” during Gov’t Mule’s cover of Pink Floyd’s “Breathe” in its closing Dark Side of the Mule slot.
In the rest and recovery phase between the marathon sessions, a swirl of theories (who exactly would be part of Grohl’s “Friends” to perform his 23-minute, instrumental prog-rock composition “Play”?) and trepidation as the likelihood of frozen precipitation intensified throughout the evening combined for a nervous excitement as the hours ticked down to showtime. Attempting to contribute to the anticipation, my wholly unfounded rumors of Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic making an appearance alongside Grohl failed to gain traction, as did statements that, since the Avett Brothers weren’t currently on tour, it was their responsibility to show up.
After Haynes’ nightly opening block, which included a touching performance of “Soulshine“ as tribute to the late Gregg Allman (on Haynes’ former bandmate’s birthday, no less), Joe Bonamassa and his high-powered comrades cranked up the room’s energy with a rip-roaring showcase of his prolific electric guitar skills.
Edwin McCain was then joined by Kevn Kinney and later Haynes on the inter-set side stage, culminating in their soulful take on Bob Dylan & The Band’s “I Shall Be Released.” The trio gave way to Asheville’s own Tyler Ramsey, establishing a Western North Carolina connection carried on by a member of the next headlining act.
But despite the local bonus of Black Mountain resident and Floating Action frontman Seth Kauffman playing bass in James’ band, the four-piece sounded unexpectedly generic. Playing fairly standard-sounding rock songs from the My Morning Jacket leader’s solo discography, the ensemble closed out with an ecstatic take on “State of the Art (A.E.I.O.U.),” delivering a sonic complexity and vibrancy lacking from the rest of the set.
Carrying that upbeat torch and bringing some much-needed feminine energy to an overwhelmingly masculine second night roster, guitarist/vocalist Joanne Shaw Taylor lit up the side stage with her extraordinary finger-work, reminding the audience of Potter’s exhilarating set the night before.
As for what was next, the entire press corps was operating on misinformation from check-in that Grohl and Eric Church had swapped set times, resulting in some playful accosting via text by a friend who, thinking she could safely take a restroom break, briefly panicked when country music did not in fact issue from the speakers as her allegedly trusted pal had said.
And so, Grohl and six fellow musicians took to the stage as originally scheduled for the debut live rendition of “Play.” Still a beast on drums, the guest of honor was joined in the song’s early minutes by Asheville busking legend Abby the Spoon Lady, who somehow wasn’t launched into the crowd by the amps’ maxed-out levels. Seated directly in front of Grohl, the effortlessly cool local drew cheers from appreciative fellow citizens with a few minutes of her musical utensil speciality before exiting to even louder applause.
Once each band member — among them Jane’s Addiction’s Chris Chaney on bass — had his lead turn and the piece reached its conclusion, Grohl waved goodbye, but the odds of him truly being done for the night felt slim — thanks in large part to a photographer’s claim at check-in that the Foo Fighters’ equipment was behind the stage. (Note: all other intel from this pre-show gathering proved true.)
A set-up more suited to Southern rock than the likes of “Learn to Fly” and “Big Me” was subsequently brought forth, along with a stool that came to be occupied by Granite Falls native Eric Church. Visibly touched to be there, he noted his awareness of the event for much of his life — he was 11 when the Jam originated — and also acknowledged that while he’d witnessed many shows in the space, it was his first time playing there.
The country star’s quiet, solo acoustic approach felt at odds with the grandiose vibe of the Jam’s main stage, though it provided a surprisingly welcome tonic to the eardrum-assaulting volume of “Play.” Perhaps aware of the power of that transition, Church closed out his set with Haynes and instrumentalists identified by a guy behind me as “half of Sheryl Crow’s band” — among them Jam mainstay Audley Freed on guitar — including a cover of The Band’s “The Weight.”
Haynes then acknowledged the potentially treacherous weather outside, but promised great surprises for those who stuck around. Those words soon proved true as he and Grohl appeared on the side stage with guitars in hand, prompting mass audience movement to the left side of the floor. The duo started in on a phenomenally smooth iteration of Foo Fighters’ “Times Like These,” after which Haynes exited, Grohl voiced his defiance of Haynes’ request to just play one song and launched into a lengthy acoustic take on “Everlong” that neither audience nor performer seemed to want to end.
Brief holiday cheer from McCain paved the way for the night’s closing set from Gov’t Mule that began with none other than Grohl on electric guitar for an extended, shred-friendly interpretation of Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World” that saw him engaging each member of the veteran quartet, elevating their playing and completing the piecemeal Foo Fighters experience.
Continuing with fan-friendly selections (i.e. I couldn’t identify a single song), Haynes’ guarantee of additional wonders to come amounted to Freed and Holloway joining in for a generous jam that had the bulk of remaining attendees dancing like their lives — or at least the music’s longevity — depended on it. The mutual appreciation lasted until 1:50 a.m. when Haynes signed off, the lights came up and the still populous crowd headed out into the cold, snowy/rainy night before road conditions trapped them downtown.
Bundled up for the walk home, I mentally replayed my favorite moments from the consecutive nights with pleasure, returning to Grohl’s and Potter’s contributions and thankful for Haynes making it all possible. As for returning in 2019, the roster of artists will play a major role in deciding whether or not to go, but as with plenty of first-time experiences that carry their share of concerns while they’re still unknowns, the likelihood of attending another Jam is far greater now than it once was.