By Caleb Calhoun
It’s 10:15 on Saturday night and somewhere a mastodon has been released into the US Cellular Center. I can feel it vibrating the floor as it charges, hear it’s rhythmic pounding in my ears. I’m in the photo pit and it sounds like it’s right above me, and then the lights come on, and there is no mastodon. Just a pillar of rock and roll, every bit larger than life, shredding his drum kit center stage.
This is the 30th anniversary of Warrren Haynes Christmas Jam, and playing to an entranced audience is none other than Dave Grohl of Nirvana and Foo Fighters fame. This is my third time covering the jam but, truth be told, I’ve never witnessed anything like this. The entire arena is shaking, the power of his magnum opus “Play” being amplified by millions and millions of watts. It’s the first time he’s ever performed this live.
This 23-minute masterpiece, which he explores for more like 45, builds and builds, each crescendo a false peak, each valley deeper than the one before. This is rock and roll, this is metal, this is a jam. This is transcendent. Then he brings out Asheville busker Abby the Spoon Lady and the home town crowd goes wild.
But that’s what this is all about, start to finish: taking care of the locals. One day soon, Marquita Scott and her children will wake up in a new Asheville Area Habitat for Humanity home, which Haynes and Christmas Jam fans have raised more than $2 million for over the past decades, and local musicians will have found themselves introduced to hundreds or thousands of new fans.
What else does taking care of the locals look like? During the Jam by Day event that precedes the main event, Andrew Scotchie and the River Rats play to a sold-out crowd at Asheville Music Hall. Woody Wood and Derrick Johnson serenade a crowd with a full set of music, including an inspired “Dear Mr. Fantasy.” Back at the main event, Jack Mescari and Ray Sisk joins Mike Barnes and Warren Haynes as the original “45 Cherry” band is reunited. All of them were there at that first jam, before Haynes had joined the Allman Brothers, and all of them were on point.
You see, for all of the moments highlighting the national recording artists, the Dave Grohls, the Mike Gordons, the Grace Potters and the Jim Jameses, Christmas Jam is, and always has been, the biggest spotlight of the year on local talent. Between the pre-jams, the after-jams, and Haynes’ simple commitment to showcasing the locals, year after year Asheville residents are treated to a smorgasbord of a weekend. It’s built on the native musicians and crowned with national acts.
I think about last night – the green room deep in the bowels of the U.S. Cellular Center – when Tyler Ramsey took the stage. “I think I used to see that guy at Greenlife,” another local says to me.
I don’t know about that, but Ramsey, who grew up in Asheville, definitely once worked at the long-gone Almost Blue record shop at the corner of Patton and Coxe avenues (where Thirsty Monk is now), selling CDs and vinyl discs to music lovers. The owner of that shop? Brian Haynes, Warren’s brother. Brian lived in a little apartment above the shop; now he’s an Asheville City Councilman. My how times have changed.
The side stage that Ramsey is playing offered some of the most powerful moments of this Christmas Jam. But back to that later. I’m still mesmerized by Grohl and his friends. I’ve never heard a drummer sound quite as confident, quite as locked. It’s not that he is playing different or faster notes than any other drummer would. It’s just that every drum beat is so damn expressive.
This whole event is so damn expressive. From Marco Benevento kicking things off on Friday night, dressed all in white, bouncing and shaking and nodding his head, to Gov’t Mule jamming for what seemed like a lifetime during the final hour of Saturday’s show. The truth is that the latter half of 2018 hasn’t been too kind to me, and this event offered a sort of out-of-body experience, a chance to forget the anxieties lurking right outside and a chance to feed my soul with good music and great vibes.
From Warren Haynes opening the entire event with an acoustic version of “Company Man” to Eric Church reaching across the aisle with an inspired version of “The Weight,” there is plenty of depth here. In fact, Friday night, as Jim James took the stage with Gov’t Mule to sing Pink Floyd classics, we were all in far over our heads. We had all already had everything we could handle when the 76 LED spotlights were finally put to full use.
There were lasers melting our faces and creating holograms on the ceiling. There were flowers spinning, illuminating the crowd, and a heavy dose of red, not friendly but warning, not chill but heart-wrenching red. There was a halo, maybe 25 feet in diameter, all of it covered in lights, flanked by 20-foot long light bars. There were disco balls and smoke machines, spots and patterns, flanks and fronts.
Most of all there was Pink Floyd, loud and perfectly mixed. It was overpowering without being overwhelming. This is the closest thing to true Floyd that has been played in years, I’m thinking to myself. Then Jim James joins the fray.
There’s a dark, eerie version of “Us and Them,” and I look at the guy beside me. We try to speak but the words are not there. We embrace and begin to laugh, tripping over each other, ending up on the sticky, beer covered Cellular Center floor.
“Is this really happening?” I manage to choke out in between hysterical laughter. “Is this really happening right now?”
A few minutes later I am sitting on that same floor, typewriter in my lap, praying I don’t get stepped on by the crowd. “Long after any of us exist,” I write,”This Dark Side of the Mule set will. This is something fitting of it’s own creator. This is Warren Haynes’ arrangement of one of the world’s greatest symphonies.”
Caleb Calhoun is a poet, author, and journalist living in West Asheville with his partner in crime and best friend Dr. Gonzo. He can be reached at Caleb.Calhoun@gmail.com or found on facebook at Caleb Andrew Calhoun.