By Caleb Calhoun
Christmas Jam 2016 was on point right from the start, but the second half was most memorable. Holly Bowling returned to the stage after Michael McDonald’s set but, her interlude was noticeably shorter than the intermission. As it turned out, there was a pretty good reason for that.
I was in the pit maybe 20 yards from the stage when Bob Weir walked on. You could feel the energy ripple through the crowd. He opened alone, just an acoustic guitar, with “Easy to Slip.” The chattering and jockeying for position had pretty much died down by the time he called Alison Krauss to the stage.
The Grateful Dead were the folk singers for an entire generation, and “Peggy-O” is one of the most beautiful of the true folk tunes they ever covered. Weir and Krauss’ chemistry was incredible and their harmony spectacular, but it was her haunting fiddle melody that made this old song brand new again.
After a pair of his campfire songs, Weir waded into a guitar-heavy “He’s Gone,” on which he was joined by both Warren Haynes and Branford Marsalis. After teasing a few other tunes, notably “That’s it for the Other One,” they delighted the crowd by heading into “Eyes of the World.”
By this point in the evening I had stashed my glasses and up until now I had assumed it was John Medeski on the keys. Perhaps two minutes into “EOTW” though and, glasses or not, I could tell that this wasn’t the case. Medeski is jazzy, progressive, and this was something else altogether. The notes were flowing, bubbling like a brook, and they provided some sort of classical melodic current I had never quite heard come through a Dead Set before.
I looked at my friend and mouthed the words “Holly Bowling.” After nearly 20 minutes of ecstasy, they revved things back up and into a powerful, honky-tonk version of “Truckin’” before finishing off with “Ripple.”
After another intermission, it was finally time for The Last Waltz Band. They came out swinging with muscular version of “Cripple Creek” and never let up. “The Shape I’m In” had the entire crowd rolling, and the mid-set trio of “Georgia on My Mind,” “The Weight” (with Weir and Krauss), and “Ophelia” were some of the greatest musical moments I can call to memory.
Krauss rejoined them a few songs later for a religious version of “Helpless,” at the end of which Haynes called on the crowd to sing along. After a pair of tunes joined by former Muddy Waters guitarist Bob Margolin, a version of “King Harvest” they ramped it back up.
The horns came in strong and hands across the stadium were raised in the air as The Last Waltz Band broke off a version of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” whose equal has not been seen since the original Last Waltz 40 years ago.
It was well past 1 .m., but Haynes assured us that after a brief set-break, Gov’t Mule would be on stage with even more music. We were all tired and we were all just barely hanging on, but most of the crowd dug a little deeper and settled in for one last set of music. Those of us who did were rewarded mightily.
Mule’s energy was not diminished one bit. They played with a rotating cast of drummers and nailed the set list. After an intense version of “Dreams,” they finished out the show with a fun, friendly version of “Mountain Jam” that made everyone forget just how tired they actually were.
It was nearly 3 a.m. when the last notes were played, but the delirious crowd was still begging for more. This is how you do an event right. This is how you send the fans home happy. I, for one, am already counting down the days to Christmas Jam 2017.
Correction: The reference to the song “Peggy-O” was corrected to state that the Grateful Dead’s version is a cover. The Grateful Dead did not write that song.
Caleb Calhoun studied writing at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and music at a plethora of clubs and bars across the southeast. He is the author and publisher of Rosman City Blues and currently resides outside of Asheville with his dog and best friend, Dr. Gonzo.
You can reach him at Caleb.firstname.lastname@example.org and/or Facebook.com/GonzoNC.