A seemingly brilliant way to start the Asheville Symphony’s 2019 Asheville Amadeus festival, the Saturday, March 16, version of Warren Haynes Presents: Dreams & Songs – A Symphonic Journey at Thomas Wolfe Auditorium was a fantastic celebration of the native son’s illustrious career and inspirations.
What it wasn’t, however, was a noteworthy showcase of the host orchestra, whose talents were barely utilized despite taking up the bulk of the stage.
This disconnect was especially pronounced for what were presumably symphony season-ticket holders, seated in the front row of the mezzanine, who began bailing during the opening set and had disappeared entirely by the start of the second set.
Considering the combined sonic volume of Haynes (guitar/vocals) and his all-star collaborators Oteil Burbridge (bass), John Medeski (keys) and Jeff Sipe (drums), something along the lines of a balanced, string-heavy Ben Folds or Indigo Girls symphony team-up was perhaps unrealistic. But consistently watching players’ bows in motion and brass instruments being raised without much proof that sounds were being produced begged the question of why their presence was included.
Under the direction of Rich Daniels (musical director for Chicago’s City Lights Orchestra), exceptions to the pure rock sound included takes on Haynes’ “Broken Promised Land,” which made room for a pleasant blanket of strings as well as an evening-highlight duel between Haynes’ guitar and background singer Jasmine Muhammad’s powerful, elastic voice; Gov’t Mule’s “Thorazine Shuffle,” during which Sipe took advantage of an opportunity to rip loose an extended solo; and slower selections like Gregg Allman’s “Just Another Rider,” The Grateful Dead’s “Black Peter” and U2’s “One” that made room in the sonic mix for the strings to subtly bounce along in the background.
Otherwise, the evening belonged to Haynes, who also nicely worked Greg Osby (saxophone) and a svelte-looking Edwin McCain (background vocals) into the ensemble. With his elite guitar work earning the spotlight over other possibilities, whether in beloved solos or playful instrumental codas that followed many songs, Haynes had the audience grooving to Gov’t Mule’s “Banks of the Deep End” and flat out going nuts with the Dead’s “Shakedown Street” and especially the exceptional sustained rock of The Allman Brothers Band’s “Whipping Post.”
Enacting these jam-tastic dance moves and replacing the symphony-favoring departures were a West Asheville leprechaun and friends who celebrated St. Patrick’s Day a few hours early. Even with the threat of an unwitting passerby getting kung fu’d to the emergency room by one of the revelers, it was honestly nice to see an energetic crowd after suffering the zombies who failed to appreciate the magnitude of Deerhunter playing at The Mothlight two Thursdays ago.
Echoing its fans, the symphony itself departed for the encore, which allowed the band to embrace a jammy, Jerry Garcia side on a version of “That’s What Love Will Make You Do” that may still be happening in a parallel universe, and the singalong-friendly “Sugaree.” Whether or not the classical musicians realized they’d barely made a sonic dent in Round One, word from a few attendees who attended both nights implied that the Sunday night mix was far more in the symphony’s favor. The symphony players’ general absence on Saturday was nothing short of disappointing, but for the bulk of attendees who came to foremost experience a Haynes show, no complaints were evident.