Warren Haynes and Jackie Greene – photo by Cory Tressler

Warren Haynes hosted his 21st annual Christmas Jam this past Saturday at Asheville, NC’s Civic Center. As in years past, the charity event featured a mix of national touring bands, solo acts and guest musicians who sat in throughout the weekend. This year’s event also placed a special emphasis on super jams, including an official Christmas Jam Band.

The weekend’s musical festivities began on Friday night with Haynes’ annual more intimate Christmas Pre-Jam at the Orange Peel. The evening’s host opened the weekend with solo renditions of Elton John’s “Madman Across The Water” and his own “Forevermore.” Jammy New Groove winners Cornmeal played next, offering a short, spirited four-song performance that came to a close with Yonder Mountain String Band’s Jeff Austin sitting in on both “River Gap” and “Jenny in the Middle.”

Next up, Drivin N Cryin frontman Kevn Kinney, former Black Crowes guitarist Audley Freed, Lynyrd Skynyrd bassist Robert Kearns, drummer Fred Eltringham and saxophonist Ron Holloway took the stage together for the first time as the Christmas Jam Band. The musicians, most of whom are longtime Christmas Jam staples, ran through “I Ain’t Waitin on Tomorrow” and the Rolling Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” before bringing out Jackie Greene to play on both the Beatles’ “Taxman” and Crosby, Stills Nash & Young’s “Ohio.”

The super jam portion of the night continued with a funk and soul-based ensemble that boasted Holloway, Meters bassist George Porter Jr., Lettuce drummer Adam Deitch, Soulive/Lettuce guitarist Eric Krasno, New Orleans staple Trombone Shorty and trumpeter Craig Sorrells. After a few songs, STAX legend William Bell, perhaps this year’s most inspired and influential guest musician, appeared to front the ad hoc group of musicians for a few songs, including “Everybody Loves a Winner.”

The next two sets featured artists that have straddled the line between mainstream and the trad rock/jamband scenes over the years. Ani DiFranco played first, running through her own “Swan Dive,” “All of This” and “Which Side are You On,” before bringing Austin out for “Freight Train.” No less than Austin, Haynes, singer Nigel Hall and the musicians of the abovementioned funk/soul band later flocked to the stage to back the singer/songwriter on “Overlap.”

Counting Crows then emerged for an extended set that included a cover of the Grateful Dead’s “Friend of the Devil,” a song the group recorded for its greatest hits record, as well as Haynes on guitar for Bob Dylan’s “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” and the August and Everything After classic “Sullivan Street.” The set came to a close with another song off that breakthrough album “Rain King.”

The evening’s final two acts were no strangers to Christmas Jam regulars: moe. and Gov’t Mule. moe. returned to Christmas Jam for the first time since 2002 for takes on “Akimbo,” “She,” “Opium” and “32 Things.” The latter two songs featured Gov’t Mule keyboardist Danny Louis and Mike Barnes and Austin and Cornmeal’s Allie Kral, respectively.

Fittingly, Haynes and Gov’t Mule closed the night with a full set that opened with “Railroad Boy” and “Monday Mourning Meltdown.” The set’s collaborations then started with Holloway and Aerosmith guitarist Brad Whitford emerged for “Feel Like Breaking Up Somebodies” and “Politician.” (the latter song also featured Fred Eltringham). After “Inside Outside Woman Blues,” Greene returned for a cover of Neil Young’s “Southern Man.” The new song “Broke Down on The Brazos” brought the evening’s festivities to a close.

Oddly enough, Whitford and Haynes were the second members of Aerosmith and the Allman Brothers Band to collaborate in the past month: in late November Gregg Allman and Steven Tyler shared the stage at a New York benefit for the Michael . J. Fox Foundation.

The weekend’s festivities continued Saturday night at the Civic Center. DJ Logic opened the night with a solo set, before Haynes, Greene and Austin officially welcomed fans to Christmas Jam with a cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses.” Collective Soul frontman Ed Roland, who played one of his first amphitheatre tours as an opening act for Aerosmith in the 1990s, offered solo versions of his hits “The World I Know” and “Shine.”

The Christmas Jam Band, without Holloway at first, regrouped for “I Ain’t Waitin on Tomorrow” and a take on “Underground Umbrella” with Louis. Soon after, Whitford returned to the stage with Edwin McCain and Holloway for “Last Child,” a song off Aerosmith’s Rocks that Whitford co-wrote. McCain and Holloway remained onstage as Whitford left the stage for “I’ve Seen a Love,” before moving aside so Haynes, Col. Bruce Hampton, Jimmy Herring and drummer Duane Trucks could join the Christmas Jam Band for “Spoonful.” Jackie Greene,Louis and the Christmas Band then closed the set with “Like a Ball & Chain,” “Animal” and “Isis.”

The Christmas Jam’s funk ensemble reassembled for a two-part performance. The first part of the set highlighted the musicians’ individual talents and included an appearance by DJ Logic. Herring also returned for a take on the New Orleans anthem “Fire on the Bayou.” The second part of the set found the musicians backing William Bell. The set read like a STAX and soul greatest hits list: a take on “Hard to Handle” that also featured Audley Freed, a version of “Everyday is a Holiday” with both Freed and Haynes and an all-star jam based around his original “Born Under a Bad Sign” that drew in Freed, Haynes and Whitford, among other song highlights. As Haynes mentioned in a recent Jambands.com interview, Whitford also played “Born Under a Bad Sign” with Gov’t Mule a few years ago.

Though Bell’s set wrapped up the super jam portion of the evening, a number of artists collaborated throughout the rest of the night. During Ani DiFranco’s show, Nigel Hall sang on a version of “Fuel,” Haynes and Austin emerged for “Which Side Are You On” and no less than Haynes, Austin, Porter, Hall, Krasno, Deitch and the Christmas Jam horns helped the singer/songwriter close her set with a big band version of “Overlap.” Likewise, moe. opened its set by bringing out DJ Logic for “Captain America,” a song he recorded with the band in the studio for the album Dither. Later in the night, Herring also played guitar on “Happy Hour Hero.” In-between, the band offered “Tailspin,” “Together at Xmas” and “Zed Naught Z.” “George” brought the set to a close.

Counting Crows also got into the collaborative spirit, inviting Haynes out for a second version of “Rain King” that moved into a cover of the Beatles’ “With a Little Help From the My Friends” that also featured Austin. Haynes also sat in with the group on a set-closing sing-along based around Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land.” Other highlights included a set-opening “Round Here” and a medley of songs from the Beatles’ Abbey Road.

Finally, Gov’t Mule took the stage early Sunday morning for Christmas Jam’s final set. The group picked up where it left off the night before with “Broke Down on the Brazos.” The quartet also offered “Steppin Lightly,” “Railroad Boy” and “Frozen Fear,” before Herring and Holloway took the stage for “Devil Likes It Slow.” Herring remained onstage for a version of Haynes’ Jerry Garcia tribute “Patchwork Quilt,” a song the two musicians recorded for Phil Lesh & Friends’ studio album. The cover-theme continued as Jackie Greene emerged for a cover of Garcia’s “Sugaree” that featured Herring and a take on the Beatles’ “Don’t Let Me Down.” Around 3 AM, Whitford returned to play with the band one last time on “Feel Like Breaking Up Somebody’s Home” and “Train Kept A Rolling.” An all-star version of “I Shall Be Released,” featuring all the musicians who remained in the house, brought the night to a close well after 3:30 AM.