By Jason Sandford/ Photos by David Simchock
There’s a moment early in the first set of Saturday night’s show featuring Asheville native Warren Haynes and his hometown Asheville Symphony when the right elements come together for transcendence. It’s fleeting, but it’s a sign of good things to come.
There’s the right song, Broken Promised Land, a classic Haynes original from his 1993 solo debut. The song’s lyrics about a down-and-out demographic ring as true now as they did 25 years ago. There’s the complementary voice, that of back-up-singer Jasmine Muhammad, wielded adroitly alongside Haynes’ guitar work. And there are the soaring strings of the symphony, lifting the song, lightening it.
Why else pair a Southern rocker with a symphony, if not to create something we’ve not quite heard before? That lush synchronicity, albeit somewhat inconsistent, is what the night is all about. Those precious moments, and the obvious musical prowess on display, made Warren Haynes Presents: Dreams & Songs – A Symphonic Journey an Asheville music fan’s spring delight.
Let’s just get this out of the way: Warren Haynes does not put on a bad show. At 58, the workaholic rocker has shown us time and again that he ranks with the most talented guitar players that have ever graced the stage.
At this point in his storied career, fans are looking for that spark of joy that reminds us of why Haynes plays in the first place. The on-stage glance and smile. The improvisation that we can see surprises and delights him. We see glimpses of it Saturday night.
Going into the show, we knew that Haynes had hand-picked his special guests-slash-bandmates with care, knowing that a chemistry with each existed: the unconventional John Medeski, of Medeski Martin & Wood, on keyboards; drummer extraordinaire Jeff Sipe, of The Aquarium Rescue Unit; jazz saxophonist Greg Osby, who has toured with an iteration of the Grateful Dead as well as Phil Lesh and Friends; old friend Edwin McCain, the South Carolina singer-songwriter who sold millions with 1990s radio hits, singing backup with the aforementioned Muhammad, who has appeared on records by Haynes’ band, Gov’t Mule; and Oteil Burbridge, who ties many of these talents together through his numerous years as a member of the resurgent Allman Brothers Band alongside Haynes, and as a founding member of both the Aquarium Rescue Unit and Dead & Company.
Of course the other element was the 50 or so expert string and percussion players of the Asheville Symphony, conducted by Rich Daniels, the musical director of The City Lights Orchestra in Chicago. He has worked with many a musical legend (Ray Charles, Garth Brooks, Dionne Warwick) and also happens to be the music director for the FOX hit show Empire.
Again, no shortage of talent here.
At first glance, as the 8 p.m. show starts right on time, the stage looks cluttered. Somewhat depressingly, we see the orchestra suck behind smudged plates of Plexiglass. They must be there for acoustical reasons, but they go unexplained. It’s also hard to even hear the players.
The collective drama of a symphony, with arcing bows and an animated maestro, is one of big reasons I’m excited for this show. But unless you’re sitting in the balcony, this element is completely lost a stage set to put Haynes and his musicians front and center.
Haynes is a little rigid starting out. He doesn’t directly address his hometown crowd the entire first hour of the show, despite the love and appreciation flowing from his audience. They’re standing, clapping, yelling and twirling in the aisles. It’s clear that Asheville has a deep love of her native son.
Haynes opens with Dreams & Songs, a beautiful tune that I consider a sister song to his glorious Soulshine. The track from the 2017 Gov’t Mule release “Revolution Come … Revolution Go,” and its reflective tone, is a great mood-setter. But it takes time to warm up, and things don’t start to click until the aforementioned Broken Promised Land.
But warm up the music and the players do, and at one point, with his players at rest, conductor Daniels turns to look down from his elevated post and smile at Haynes as he riffs. Daniels’ joy in the moment and clear admiration for Haynes’ musicianship is just what I want to see.
From there, It Makes No Difference, a classic from The Band, continues a sentimental vibe that I think infuses so much of Haynes’ work. It’s an alluring mix of wistfulness, regret and hopefulness (maybe helplessness, too) that this audience of middle-aged hippies (with a few symphony suits sprinkled in) simply can’t hear enough.
Spots of Time, another Haynes’ rocker, moves into three bars of instantly recognizable music – Terrapin Station, which moves into Slipknot! These two Grateful Dead covers are tried and true arrangements that Haynes has performed with the likes of the Colorado Symphony at Red Rocks amphitheater and the Boston Pops. They let the symphony strings, airy and sparkly, shine through.
As Haynes and the symphony return from the break, it’s clear that the symphony sound is much more dialed in. The orchestral lift to the songs like Raven Black Night and Banks of the Deep End is energizing. This is what we came to hear.
The third tune in is another Grateful Dead cover that has the crowd erupting in a hip-shaking symphony of its own. There’s no denying the power of Shakedown Street. A few tunes later, a cover of U2’s One, followed by a cover of Whipping Post by The Allman Brothers Band, has the Haynes/orchestra combo, and the crowd, at a crescendo.
Looking at the stage and thinking about Haynes’ extended musical family, I can’t help but think of what’s been lost. Gregg Allman and Bruce Hampton both died in May 2017. Kofi Burbridge, the older brother of Oteil and a keyboardist and flautist know for his work with the Allmans, Aquarium Rescue Unit, Dead & Company and the Tedeschi Trucks Band, died in February of this year. It’s a time to remember, honor and show respect, all while celebrating what has been.
With a reprise of Dreams & Songs, an electronic scramble led by Medeski, a rousing rendition of Sugaree and the Soulshine finale that we all knew was coming, it’s time to say goodnight. What else is there to say? We’ve experienced a night of beautiful music. See you at Christmas Jam, Warren.