By Caleb Calhoun
Saturday morning isn’t kind to me.
I have to kick out my roommate. I get laid off from a job. My aunt passes away. I’m trying to stay on task, to get myself to the show in one piece, with one focus. I’m trying to be a professional. But I just feel so damn sad and lonely. I don’t even know how to turn on my lovelight at this point, and when I arrive at Asheville Music Hall mid-afternoon, I’m not feeling ready to deal with the crowd.
I find my photographer David Simchock and we stand in the back. The newest addition to the Rolling Stone’s staff walks up and shoots the bull with David. I honestly don’t know if I even want to be here.
I head over to the venue at exactly 5:30 p.m., ready to get my credentials and go inside. I’m hoping to find some space on the couch to chill and forget about life. I sit down. Half a second later, Jim James sits down beside me.
I have no idea what he’s doing out here. He’s his own green room. But I seize the opportunity. I grab my typewriter and try to sound intelligent. Mostly I just sputter. He’s warm and welcoming, and clearly having a great time at his first Christmas Jam. He tells me that he hopes he can do it again, and that he has enjoyed the camaraderie here immensely. Then he’s gone and I’m in a much better place mentally.
It’s almost time for the jam to start, so I head upstairs in time to hear the 45 Cherry band – host Warren Haynes and several of his old friends who were at that very first Jam 30 years ago – play “Soulshine,” bringing me further out of my self-loathing and into the shared love of this event.
The thing about Christmas Jam is that it is nearly impossible to stay in a bad mood once you’re inside the doors. There’s the sense that we’re all working together to create a better community, and that we’re all having one helluva time doing it. As Haynes and the 45 Cherry band finish up and Joe Bonamassa heads out on the stage I survey the audience. Everyone is a little faded from last night but ready to go.
Bonamassa immediately begins revving us all up, prancing around stage and ripping his guitar like he is the reincarnation of Chuck Berry. I take it in from a couple of different angles before running outside for a cigarette. Jim James has the next set and I intend to be down front and present for every moment of that.
James has already made multiple appearances this weekend. While his vocals on “Us vs Them” were otherworldly, perhaps one of the most powerful moments of the entire weekend was James, Grace Potter, and Warren Haynes taking the side stage Friday night for a moving and ethereal acoustic version of “Gold Dust Woman.”
To tell the truth, I hadn’t really expected to see James at all, but for a minute, during the trio, I thought he was going to steal the whole show. Then the song ended quietly, the lights flickered for just a moment, and Potter launched into a brazen and powerful introduction that captivated the crowd from it’s first notes.
As she screamed and sang her way through a surprising and energetic set, the crowd began to melt. “I’ve got the medicine that everybody wants,” she sang, and I had no doubt that she was telling the truth. Every person in this building – 9,000 strong, straight, gay, bi, transgender, queer – every single one of them just dying for a drop of that medicine.
She finished her set, settled down just a little and spoke directly to the audience. “Thank you for letting me play these songs,” she told us sincerely. “I have one more song for you, and this one doesn’t belong to me, but thank you for loaning it to me this evening.”
It was an emotional version of Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released,” a Christmas Jam staple. She belts out the lyrics and I see that many of those around me are crying. I began to feel my tears streaming down my face. My Aunt Beverly, a lover of The Band, was in a hospital bed, it turns out, passing into another life as I listened to Potter serenade her spirit on to the other side.
I’m pondering these thoughts, and memories I will cherish for the rest of my life, as the lights come up on the main stage in front of me and James steps forward. Dressed in black jeans and a black tank top, his biceps rippling under the hot pink lights, he immediately has our attention. His band is relentless, his vocals otherworldly. He takes us through an enthusiastic set highlighted by a driving “State of the Art” that has everyone in the audience reciting their “ABC’s” right along with him.
I miss the first part of Eric Church’s set grabbing a smoke, but get back just in time for “Atlantic City” and “The Weight.” Then Haynes is beseeching the audience once more, promising even greater surprises to come if we can only hang out, ignore the snow falling outside and see the rest of the event he has planned.
As the main stage is changed over for Gov’t Mule, Haynes and Grohl enter the side stage for a duet version of The Foo Fighters “Times Like These.” Then as Haynes leaves to get ready for his next set, Grohl launches into an acoustic version of “Everlong” that gives us all chills.
Then it’s Mule, scratchy and rusty and dark, rock and roll to their core, closing out the event as full use of the LED’s is made once more. Brains blasted, minds melted, whatever you want to call it, the crowd is still hanging on, dancing just a few more of their blues away before what promises to be a long walk home.
Speaking to my publisher later he says: “What struck me about this year’s Jam was the nostalgia mixed with new blood. Not a passing of the torch – but it does make me wonder where we go from here. This was a high water mark for sure.”
I agree this is a high water mark, but I don’t believe the water is done rising. So where does Christmas Jam go from here? From Dave Grohl and Pink Floyd and Grace Potter and Jim James? From four nights of bliss: two days full of local music, plus a pre-Jam and one unbelievable pop-up show featuring Haynes and Grohl back at the Orange Peel, that no one saw coming?
We go wherever the hell Warren Haynes wants to take us, that’s where.
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.
Correction: The song “I Shall Be Released” is by Bob Dylan. An earlier version incorrectly stated it was a song by The Band.