Christmas Jam Triumphantly Returns For 31st Installment

By Stu Kelly / December 13, 2022

After a three-year hiatus, Warren Haynes‘ famed Christmas Jam triumphantly returned for its 31st installment at Harrah’s Cherokee Center in Haynes’ hometown of Asheville, North Carolina. Christmas Jam is presented by the W&S Charitable Foundation and Stefani Scamardo (Haynes’ wife). The annual holiday event benefits the Asheville Area Habitat for Humanity, and organizers selected BeLoved Asheville as another beneficiary this year. The marathon event boasted an incredible lineup featuring first-time performers, surprise guests, and veterans of the annual musical celebration. The sold-out crowd of over 7,000 people lined up early outside of the venue eager to get inside and get the party started. The energy inside the building was palpable as the fans were excited to see Christmas Jam return. 

The event got underway after an intimate acoustic display carried out by Joe Russo’s Almost Dead guitarist, Scott Metzger, and his wife, vocalist/violinist, Katie Jacoby on stage right. The way Christmas Jam is organized, a small setup on stage right serves as a performance space while the production team strikes down/sets up for the next act. Despite the smaller size of the performance space on stage right, the sound of the PA still comes crashing down. The area also serves as a launching pad for collaborations and artist sit-ins, keeping fans on their toes because you never know who’s going to come to sit in. Jacoby, who also tours with The Who, added her adept violin skills to Metzger’s soulful acoustic chops on his beloved C.F. Martin guitar. Jacoby also surprised fans with a stellar cover of Black Sabbath‘s “The Wizard,” simultaneously playing the violin and handling lead vocals. Scott was enthralled with his partner as he looked on endearingly. 

Christmas Jam first-timers Dinosaur Jr. were the first act to kick off the mainstage. The trio wasted no time and brought the energy right out of the gates opening with “The Lung,” which found its way into their recently recorded track “Garden.” Founded in 1984, Dinosaur Jr. has cultivated a unique sound of grunge-inspired rock that’s full of nonstop energy. This performance was a special one for Dinosaur Jr. since they don’t have any additional dates booked on their calendar. Other highlights from their set included “Been There All the Time,” “Get Me” and “Start Choppin.” The trio has an undeniable amount of musical chemistry between them as a band. Despite the fact there are only three members in the band, the result is a robust and area-filling sound that must be respected. The Amherst, Massachusetts natives left a long-lasting impression and made the most of their respected time slot. 

Brothers Osborne took the main stage next with a vengeance and delivered one of the best sets throughout the evening. Brothers T.J. Osbourne and John Osbourne are both overflowing with musical talent and their natural chemistry on stage is potent. Brothers Osborne ignited a colossal wave of energy through their music and if there were any skeptics in the audience they were surely won over after witnessing their performance. Originally from Deale, Maryland, the duo signed a recording contract with EMI Records Nashville in 2012 and began releasing music the following year. It’s safe to say Nashville is the home away from home for the two brothers. Opening up with “Skeletons” Brothers Osborne wasted no time finding their groove. Other highlights from their set included “Shoot Me Straight,” “Weed, Whiskey, Willie,” “Dead Man’s Curve” and “Headstone.” Brothers Osborne’s stage presence was unlike anything we had seen thus far over the course of the evening. Wrapping up their set with “It Ain’t My Fault” the band put an exclamation point on their set and capped off their time slot with prowess. 

Over on stage right Hiss Golden Messenger (MC Taylor) put together a gorgeous solo acoustic set that acted as the perfect landing gear. The North Carolina native already had several fans in the building as he was riding a wave of momentum which lead to his performance at Christmas Jam. In 2023, Hiss Golden Messenger will embark on a solo tour beginning in California in March and wrapping up in New York in April. His solo set at Christmas Jam was the perfect opportunity for him to experiment with his new stripped-down sound. Working through his catalog, highlights included “Harder Rain, “Sanctuary” and “Terms of Surrender.” This set was clearly a foreshadowing of what fans can expect during his bi-coastal tour next year. 

Gov’t Mule took the main stage next and it was clear the audience had been patiently waiting to see them in action. Unfortunately, Danny Louis was forced to sit out of this year’s event. In the true spirit of Christmas Jam, this opened up the possibilities for various artist collaborations. Matt Abts shined on the tubs and skins right out of the gates as his thunderous drumming came crashing down with force. At 69 years old, Abts is showing no signs of slowing down anytime soon and he continues to prove time and time again not only how much of a virtuoso he is as a drummer, but also how integral he is for the overall success of Gov’t Mule’s sound. Abts lays a rock-solid rhythm foundation, along with bassist Jorgen Carlsson, for Warren Haynes to paint his masterpiece over the top. The trio opened up with “Mule” which found its way into “Temporary Saint” before the band took a moment on stage. Warren turned to Abts and said, “it’s my f**cking voice” confirming the rumors circulating before the show that Haynes was suffering from a cold. Nonetheless, the band leader persevered through the adversity and still sounded incredible. Rob Barraco joined the band on stage next and the Dark Star Orchestra piano player added his flair for the remainder of the set. 

The opening notes of “Banks of the Deep End” ignited a roar of excitement from the crowd as this is one of Gov’t Mule’s most beloved numbers among fans. The soulful number featured Haynes taking this version for a walk as he delivered a piercing guitar solo on his trademark, Gibson Les Paul. While Haynes’ voice may have not been 100%, his guitar playing was as beautiful as ever. Warren Haynes is a true once-in-a-lifetime generational talent. There are simply not enough words to describe how important he is as an artist. Haynes has led a life with many different winding roads, he’s faced adversity, suffered the losses of loved ones, been through multiple breakups with The Allman Brothers Band, and persevered through some of life’s most challenging obstacles. All of which have helped shape him into the man he is today. A true inspiration, Haynes embodies everything you want to see out of an artist. He has so much respect for the ritual of creating live music in a communal environment and he pours his heart and soul into his creative efforts. Often dubbed as “the hardest working man in the jam band community,” it’s no surprise that he made sure this year’s Christmas Jam was as special as it could be.

Gov’t Mule welcomed a plethora of guests on stage during their set, including Audley Freed on guitar for a cover of The Black Crowes‘ “Sometimes Salvation” and Bobby “Blue” Band‘s “Ain’t No Love in the Heart of the City,” Mike Barnes with George Porter, Jr. and Jeff Sipe for a take on Little Feat‘s “Sailin’ Shoes” and The Meters‘ “Hey Pocky A-Way.” Scott Metzger and Katie Jacoby emerged for Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young‘s “Almost Cut My Hair” and John Osbourne joined the band to close out the set with a delightful cover of ABB’s “Blue Sky.” It was absolutely incredible to see so much talent weaving on and off the stage and covering some of rock and roll’s most sacred numbers together. This is exactly what the spirit of Christmas Jam is all about. 

The energy in the room was bubbling for Tyler Childers as the majority of the people in attendance were excited to finally see the Kentucky native perform live. Childers is an artist rapidly on the ascend who still makes his own rules and dances to the beat of his own drum. For example, Childers often scraps his most beloved songs from his setlists without sympathy. Songs like “Feathered Indians,” “Whitehouse Road,” “Charleston Girl,” “Nose on the Grindstone,” “Deadman’s Curve” and “All Your’n” have all become extreme rarities despite the demand and hunger from fans to see them played live. Recently, Childers released his first studio album since 2020’s Long Violent History earlier this year with a three-part gospel album titled Can I Take My Hounds To Heaven? Childers opened up his set with “Country Squire” which paved a way for a cover of Charley Crockett‘s “Tom Turkey.” Childers’ backing band The Food Stamps were locked in and clearly having fun on stage. “Honky Tonk Flame” surfaced next before a cover of Kenny Rogers & The First Edition‘s “Tulsa Turnaround.”

Before the Kenny Rogers number Childers took some time to address the crowd and pay homage to the venue because it was the last place he performed in early 2020 before COVID-19 suspended live touring. “House Fire” set up one of the highlights of Childers’ set when he opted for “Universal Sound,” one of the rare fan favorites that you’re lucky to hear live these days. A massive sing-a-long between the Childers and the audience ignited the largest moment of crowd participation throughout the night. Warren Haynes also joined Tyler on stage for a gorgeous cover of The Charlie Daniels Band‘s “Trudy.” Tyler Childers closed his set with a solo acoustic performance of “Lady May” off of his 2017 penultimate album Purgatory. The sheer passion in Tyler’s voice fully resonated with this version. The prowess of Tyler Childers as an artist was put on full display as he held an audience of 7,000 people in the palm of his hand. Armed with only his acoustic guitar and a microphone, Childers led the audience through the heartfelt number with grace putting a lid on his set and proving why he’s gained as much success as he has so far over his career. It was a truly beautiful moment to witness. 

Phil Lesh and Freinds headlined this year’s Christmas Jam and it was a real treat to see the Grateful Dead bass player bring his joy and enthusiasm to the stage once again. Phil Lesh was full of smiles on stage, clearly relishing in the celebration. Phil wore a blue sweater with the name “Cody” embroidered on his right sleeve, the name of a young man whose liver was donated to Phil Lesh. Lesh knows little about Cody, only that he tragically passed away in an automobile or bicycle accident. Nonetheless, the bass player has noted how he prays for him every night. Phil and Friends are always an exciting collaboration because it’s a rotating cast of musicians adding their own touch and contribution to Phil’s vision.

This year’s lineup came close to reuniting The Quintet configuration, also known as “The Q.” During a tour in 2000, Phil Lesh assembled “The Q” which consisted of guitarists Jimmy Herring and Warren Haynes, keyboardist Rob Barraco and drummer John Molo. Nearly the same lineup got together at Christmas Jam sans Herring with John Scofield, another reoccurring Phil and Friends collaborator, who was appointed into Jimmy’s spot at this year’s Christmas Jam. Phil and Friends even dusted off a few of The Q numbers for this set including a cover of Wilson Pickett’s “In The Midnight Hour,” which landed into the Grateful Dead rarity, “Mason’s Children,” with Warren, Phil, and Rob each taking turns sharing vocal responsibilities. “Brown Eyed Woman,” “Shakedown Street” and the popular Q cover of The Beatles‘ “I Am The Walrus” kept the energy afloat. 

Warren Haynes led the band through a beautifully tender version of Bonnie Dobson‘s “Morning Dew” with Phil Lesh smiling ear to ear in full admiration of Haynes’ musical prowess. “Morning Dew” is a beloved cover among the Grateful Dead community as it was adopted by Jerry Garcia in 1967. The Dead first played the song as their opening number at the Human Be-In in January 1967; the same month the group recorded it for their self-titled debut album, which was released that March. No version is more hailed than the version the Grateful Dead played in London, in 1972, where Garcia had tears running down his face during the improvisational part of the song. That version would end up enshrined on the compilation album Europe ’72. Phil and Friends went on to churn out a super danceable version of “Eyes of the World” before opting for a cover of Miles Davis‘ “So What,” a cover the Q also played last year during their reunion at the Capitol Theatre.

The one-two punch of “Help On The Way” > “Slipknot!” was well received by the audience. Fully expecting the band to finish the trifecta with the usual “Franklin’s Tower” to follow suit, Phil and Friends opted for a curve ball as the opening notes of “Terrapin Station” fell out of the PA like snowflakes. At the end of the “Lady With a Fan” segment, the band playfully reprised Miles Davis’ “So What.” Phil Lesh handled the lead vocals for their set closer with “Box of Rain,” a song Phil Lesh penned with Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter as a tribute to Lesh’s dying father. As the clock eclipsed 2:30 a.m. the band put the closing notes of “Box of Rain” and the 31st installment of Christmas Jam to rest. Christmas Jam is a unique event unlike anything else. It’s an incredible launching pad of exploration, collaboration, creativity, and expression. Check out the two non-profit beneficiaries  Asheville Area Habitat For Humanity and BeLoved Asheville to see how you can get involved. 


About the author

Stu Kelly