Asheville photographer David Simchock captured these scenes from the annual Hometown Holiday Jam on Dec. 18 at The Orange Peel.
Ten bucks and a can of corn.
That was what it cost to get into The Orange Peel last week for the XIX Annual Hometown Holiday Jam. The proceeds benefited the MANNA Food Bank and Compassionate Community, but those that showed up for this feel-good, all-star sing-along benefitted mightily themselves. Presented by the Asheville Musicians Coalition and curated and coordinated by local luminary Jack Mascari, the XIX Annual Holiday Jam brought together more than 70 (you read that right) of Western North Carolina’s most loved musicians to celebrate the holiday to come and the year that has been.
In true holiday jam form the star-studded house band, comprised of Jack and Jim Mascari, Danny Elfer, Dave Fowler, Tony Creasman and Marc Keller would stay on stage for nearly the entire five hours, playing with and behind every musician that graced the stage. On point, but ready to run when the groove got hot, the house band played their roll perfectly keeping the audience dancing and the sets moving.
After opening with some instrumental music they welcomed Chloe Anne Davidson to the stage for a flowery and lilting Angel from Montgomery that let everyone know just what kind of mood the shows creators were going for. After a couple songs from Acoustic Envy, Sons of Ralph heads to the stage where their rusty, honkey-tonk version of T for Texas had the entire place locomoting.
After a short break to switch over for the next section of the show, they were right back at it with Lyric performing an original and a George Clinton cover, followed by Ruthie and Andy Hunter bringing a soulful I’ll Be Around. Early in and the evening was already going splendidly, but when Marisa and Josh Blake took the stage they took the entire event to a different level.
Leading with a Koko Taylor tune, Voodoo Child, Marisa’s powerful vocals and intense stage presence, matched with Josh Blake’s bong-rips-in-your-mom’s-basement-type demeanor while shredding the guitar, really pulled the crowd in. You could feel the heat on the back of your neck from the back-row Baptists making their way down front, as if Blake’s particular blend of funk, rock and confidence were some sort of an altar call.
After Voodoo they brought Nicole and Spiro Nicolopolous out for a groovy, understated rip of Shakedown Street. As the crowd realized we were getting some of the good ol Grateful Dead, they began to separate, making space for the spinners and dancers to close their eyes and drift off into some other dimension.
Not to be outdone Peggy Ratusz, with hometown favorite Andrew Scotchie on the guitar, brought a smoking hot version of Bonnie Rait’s Mighty Tight Woman before covering a more conventional Doobie Brothers song that the audience could sing along to.
The band changes again and now it is Nicole and Spiro Nicolopolous playing an exquisite Midnight in Harlem that has all of us in the audience catching goosebumps. Sometimes I don’t see Spiro play for a few months, and I forget just how delightful his tone and temperament on the guitar are. Nevertheless, it never takes me long to remember once I’m in the audience. If Marisa and Josh turned up the volume, so to speak with their set, Nicole and Spiro fed it mushrooms. The crowd, which at this point has heard and danced to all styles and tempos of music, is just melting into Nicole’s vocals and Spiro’s patient lead guitar.
When Danny Phillips comes out with a moody, incense-soaked Spanish Moon the audience is truly leaning in. Then like a sucker punch he delivers a gritty, raunchy Dixie Chicken that shakes out everyone’s slow dances.
As Kaitlyn Baker and Joe Lasher take the stage the set up is perfect. The 500 or so in attendance are all friends by this point, and all in to let the musicians continue to direct, to rock and roll us through the evening. With nearly every musician in attendance on stage with them, Baker and Lasher lead the crowd in a friendly, touchy-feely version of Bill Withers Lean On Me.
It feels a little bit like a sitcom at this point – like the script had written in our musical heroes coming to our favorite Cheers bar just to serenade us for the holidays. As Baker and Lasher finish up with I Get by with a Little Help, the crowd is arm-in-arm, warm, bubbling over with joy and camaraderie.
This is the true holiday spirit. A crowd full of young hippies and old rockers all jamming together to songs that we know and love. This is non-denominational church, a place to come love and be loved and leave filled up.
As the shorter sets of the evening come to a close, the stage is prepared for Emma’s Lounge. The crowd has certainly thinned by this point, more than four hours in, but the faithful, especially Emma’s Lounge regulars, are still there and ready to get down. As they close out their set with Heading for the Hills, you can hear the crowd screaming along on the last chorus, “Heading for the hills, the hollow calls my name…”
And then it is the boys from the hills themselves, Jack Mascari and friends, this time including Justin Powell on the keys and one very special guest. Blake Ellege, dressed as Old Saint Nick, comes out to provide the vocals for a ripping version of Santa’s Got a New Bag. As the crowd settles down after the number, they decide to finish out the evening with a little Steely Dan. They explain that this is a song that was loved by one of their own who passed recently. We all take a moment to reflect on those no longer with us, then they play us out in splendid fashion.
It’s a beautiful evening of sharing love, joy and music with our friends and neighbors. If you didn’t catch it this time around, mark it on your calendar for next year.
Editor’s note: The weekend of Dec. 13 also saw Asheville music venues over-flowing with mostly local musical talent. The weekend has been known as the weekend of the annual Warren Haynes Christmas Jam, which has been held for 30 years in Asheville. Organizers of the Christmas Jam announced that they were taking a one-year break this year, but the music still went on at The Orange Peel, Asheville Music Hall and Jack of the Wood. Christmas Jam weekend was once again a heartfelt display of the musical family we enjoy here in Asheville.
Caleb Calhoun writes stuff. You can reach him at [email protected].