Let’s stop here for a second. The Christmas Jam is almost 20 years old ... think about that for a second. Asheville native Haynes started the yearly concert in 1988 to raise money for Habitat For Humanity, raising around $650,000 to date. And every year he’s put together a fantastic, diverse range of talent that’s included anyone from Marty Stuart’s honky-tonk to Living Color’s funky skronk, John Scofield’s forward thinking bop to the kind of weirdness peculiar only to the inimitable Col. Bruce Hampton. Another plus is the chance to see such players sitting in on one another’s sets, fitting their particular musical approaches and personalities around each other, with the result being many extraordinary improvisational moments and a huge amount of, dare I say, fun.
Once settled in, Drivn’N’Cryin’s Kevn Kinney belted out an incredibly brief rendition of “My Jesus” before G Love and Special Sauce graced the audience with their bluesy though undeniably Anglo brand of rap/funk/soul. The band was good, especially with the addition of Gov’t Mule bassist (and Black Crowes alumnus) Andy Hess and Parliament Funkadelic keyboardist Bernie Worrell on a few tunes. As for G Love, well ... he was G Love, all the way. Maybe it’s the feeling that you’ve heard all his tunes somewhere before — possibly done by him or other artists that sound an awful lot like him. Undeniable, however, is his ability to elicit uncontrollable fits of head bobbing and public displays of affection by young, dreadlocked hippie couples, which is nothing to sneeze at. Really, people don’t like getting your germs on them while they’re playing kissy-face, so don’t do it.
It wouldn’t be a lie to say that more than a few people were scratching their heads when the official lineup was announced this year. At first glance, rock/pop veterans like Jackson Browne and Peter Frampton aren’t usually mentioned in the same breath as X-mas jam mainstays like Dave Schools, John Popper or the ever-tasteful (and painfully underappreciated) Audley Freed, formerly of Cry Of Love and Black Crowes. In missing Browne’s set, I have no point of reference as to how well his vibe and material fit the bill. But once Peter Frampton walked onstage, wielding a Les Paul as gracefully aged as himself, one thing was pretty clear: though he kind of comes off like a hip grandpa acting like a goofy teenager, the guy can really play. Don’t forget that he was a budding blues/rock virtuoso back in his days with Humble Pie. It wasn’t until the heady days of his 70’s superstardom that his playing took a backseat to his curly locks and oh-so-period-correct feel-good pop anthems. Do I feel like you do, Peter? Well probably not, but it sure looks like you’re having fun telling me about it.
Ah, but now the curly locks have been replaced with tightly shorn grey hair. Bellbottoms and silk shirts for blue jeans and flannel. And Peter Frampton doesn’t have to compete with himself, or our preconceptions of who he is, any more. He just has to play that guitar, tear into it like some jazzier version of Clapton, trading furious licks with Haynes on “Blooze,” or cracking smiles on the faces of audience members old enough to have experienced his talk-box trickery the first time around with, yes folks, “Do You Feel Like I Do.” But the clincher, the thing that forced me to whoop and holler before I got control of myself, was his set closing and wonderfully unexpected cover of the Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” Frampton nailed it, dancing around Clapton’s original melodies with ease, decorating each phrase with a quick blur of notes or an aching, soaring bend. So, yeah, he was pretty good.
Closing the concert was Haynes and Gov’t Mule, with random guests sprinkled through the set. Haynes has that air of confidence about him that makes you feel that he’s done this a million times — probably because he has. The guy’s a musical machine, playing in 14 bands, sitting in on friend’s albums and shows, running a record label, organizing concerts like this one and generally just being a complete badass. There, I said it. Mule hit the stage like they’d been playing together the whole night, ripping into the Bush slamming “Mr. High and Mighty” and yet another variation of the Col. Bruce mainstay “Fixin’ to Die” with the intensity of musicians that left the status of “seasoned” long ago. These guys just get up there and go for it, with consistently stunning results. Haynes swooped and slid with a tone embodying all that is humbuckers and mahogany, firing off another salvo of notes with Frampton on “I Believe To My Soul.” The guitar orgy continued on “32/20 Blues,” this time with fellow Ashevillian and longtime compatriot Mike Barnes whipping out a bucket full of fiery, angular licks. “Goin’ Out West” closed the night, letting guest Audley Freed shine on his own, with one of the tightest rhythm sections around (drummer Matt Abts and bassist Hess) stretching out before sending everyone “home,” at least figuratively.
Shortly after the last notes rang out, the guys in the bright yellow coats began the unenviable task of herding all the stragglers out of the building and cleaning up one monumental mess. And though I’m still grumbling about missing Grace Potter, Jackson Browne, Stockholm Syndrome and most of Bruce Hornsby, what I DID get to see and hear makes me much more motivated to attend the next 20 Christmas Jams, if I should be so lucky. Next time, however, I won’t be late.