Though Warren Haynes’ annual Christmas Jam has become synonymous with legendary performances and monumental collaborations, it should have surprised no one that the 23rd edition would exceed even those lofty expectations. It’s an enigmatic number, 23, and the significance of the sum of the month (12) and year (11), along with the lunar eclipse that happened during the show, imparted a mystical air to the proceedings. The dazed expressions that many wore after the show indicated the marked intensity of this year’s marathon party, which was surely one of the most remarkable in the event’s storied history. The above average (for the Jam – astronomical for any other occasion) lineup surely stoked anticipation and ultimately did not disappoint.
The atmosphere inside the Civic Center grew increasingly thick as the Phil Lesh and Friends set drew closer. When Lesh, Haynes, Greene, drummer Joe Russo, and keyboardist Jeff Chimenti took the stage with “Shakedown Street,” the place practically exploded in a rush of smiles and light. The crowds at the Christmas Jam are noted for friendliness, and this year’s group was no exception. From the floor to the upper reaches, the attendees were overwhelmingly happy to see each other and a peaceful vibe prevailed. After a somewhat rickety “Deal,” the band regrouped to deliver the natural pairing of “Viola Lee Blues,” which ended up in full-bore improvisation, and “Caution (Do Not Stop On Tracks),” which hit a wild gospel groove and featured Haynes doing his best Pigpen vocal riff impersonation. Continuing with the timeless combo of “China Cat Sunflower > I Know You Rider,” the quintet fearlessly embarked on another rewarding instrumental excursion that peaked with exuberant piano and soulful guitar work. Then, the concert ascended to still another level, as Jimmy Herring joined the band for a majestic “Dark Star.”
“Dark Star” unfurled with a grandeur befitting one of the greatest live jams ever conceived, beginning as a few minutes of alternately gentle and invigorating instrumental noodling. The song’s dramatic first notes sent a palpable surge of excitement through the crowd, and the band kicked in to a most luxurious groove. The tempo gradually accelerated to a sprint before settling into a bluesy space full of possibility. The possibilities manifested into a brief flash of “The Other One” before a pause and move into The Beatles’ “She Said She Said,” followed by a loose but markedly creative jam back into “Dark Star.” The breathtaking run culminated with a flawless transition into a gripping and triumphant “Wharf Rat,” but the most explosive moment of the set came during “The Other One.” Herring unleashed a volcanic solo that upped the ante for any other guitarist planning to take a swing at “The Other One” for the remainder of history. A spirited “Sugaree” balanced the emotional weight of the previous songs and made for a fine set closer. “Angel Band” in the encore slot felt like a grand finale, but a full set of Gov’t Mule was still to come.