“Jes Grew which began in New Orleans….They are calling it a plague when in fact it is an anti-plague.”
–Mumbo Jumbo-Ishamel Reed
“ Jes Grew (comes) from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Topsy and James Weldon Johnson’s description of Afro-American music’s unascribed development, ? Jes Grew is a contagion, connected with the improvisational spirit of ragtime and jazz, that begins to spread across America in the Twenties. It is an irrational force that threatens to overwhelm the dominant, repressive traditions of established culture.”
— Carl Brucker from his essay on Ishamel Reed in the Critical Survey of Long Fiction, (1987)
There’s a gig that has been happening every December in Asheville, North Carolina for twenty-two years now. Its purpose is to raise money for Habitat for Humanity, a non-profit that helps people without a home to find shelter. Its mode of operation is getting together a group of great musicians to play with their own bands and with each other for eight or so hours one night every December.
The event is known as the Xmas Jam and the man behind the show is guitarist Warren Haynes, who plays with the Allman Brothers, the Dead, his band Gov’t Mule and several other combos. This year’s lineup featured Gregg Allman, The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, the Steve Miller Band, members of Widespread Panic, Umphrey’s McGee, and Haynes’ new band simply called the Warren Haynes Band. The music ranged from the jam-band stylings of Umphrey’s McGee to the total New Orleans funk of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band; from the soulful songs of The Warren Haynes Band to the rock blues of Steve Miller’s group. It was a joyful assembly.
If I were to choose a couple favorite parts of the evening they would be the set delivered by Haynes’ new band and the closing set from The Dirty Dozen Brass Band. The former, which was the first public performance of the group, featured five songs and most of the musicians that will appear on the group’s upcoming CD release. The band includes the following personnel besides Haynes: Ivan Neville on keys (who played with Keith Richards and is a member of the Neville Brothers and Dumphastunk), bassist Ron Johnson, Terrance Higgins on drums, Ron Holloway on sax and blues singer Ruthie Foster. The songs included an original called “River’s Gonna’ Rise,” a heartrending version of Otis Redding’s “I’ve Been Loving You too Long” and a suitably funky version of Robert Palmer’s “Sneaking Sally Through the Alley.”
How does one describe Haynes’ new ensemble? Soulful would be a good place to start. With Haynes weaving leads and rhythms as intricately as an ancient Chinese weaver of silk cloth for the emperors and Ron Holloway blowing melodies on a sax straight out of Memphis; a bottom provided by bassman Ron Johnson and Terrence Higgins and Neville’s keyboards, the word ecstatic comes to mind. Just to make certain that ecstasy is the case, Ruthie Foster’s vocals bring it all together like the final stitch on the aforementioned emperors’ cloaks. Tight describes their playing while loose describes the way they made the audience feel.
The surprise of the night was Steve Miller and his band. For most people, Miller is probably best known for his multitude of popular hits in the 1970s and 1980s, including songs like “The Joker,” “Take the Money and Run,” and “Jet Airliner.” The truth is that Miller and his band were one of the original San Francisco bands from the mid-1960s. Their first album, titled Children of the Future, is nothing short of a psychedelic classic. The titled song alone stands up there with the Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit,” the Grateful Dead’s “Dark Star,” and Quicksilver Messenger Service’s “Pride of Man” as a tune that not only popularized the freak culture of the era but spoke to the ethos present during the best times of that brief but monumental moment in cultural history.
Unfortunately for those of us in the audience who remember that album, Miller did not play anything from it. He did however, play a couple mean blues tunes: “Further On Up the Road” and “Just Got Back From Texas.” Warren Haynes accompanied him on the former. It was the pop songs that surprised me that night. After hearing the band open with a twelve minute version of “Jet Airliner” I will never dismiss that song again. The entire audience was on their feet and dancing like they were worshiping St. Vitus. The worship did not end until Haynes joined Miller and his band for their final song “Fly Like An Eagle.”
After a brief acoustic interlude from John Bell of Widespread Panic, Gregg Allman and a special Xmas Jam backing band (which included Warren Haynes, former Black Crowes guitarist Audley Freed, Wallflowers drummer Fred Eltringham and Ivan Neville along with some members of the Dirty Dozen Brass band) took the stage. Opening with a blistering version of his hit “Midnight Rider,” the ensemble played a half-dozen more songs including the early Allman Brothers tune “Dreams,” Bob Dylan’s “Just Like A Woman,” and the Allman Brothers classic “Melissa.” The situation in the auditorium by the end of the set had transcended mere ecstasy. Indeed, it was something much closer to rock and roll heaven. The version of “Dreams” with Ron Holloway’s sax solo and Haynes’ subsequent slide guitar work was the clincher in the journey to that celestial place.
Then the funksters took the stage. Before they played a note, The Dirty Dozen Brass Band set the tone with the words: “Welcome to Mardi Gras in Asheville, Man!” This group, if you have never heard them, blend New Orleans jazz, Dixieland, funk and blues into an incredible dance mix that is so infectious that even the dead can’t help but move their feet when the band gets going. Opening with a tune of theirs called “Ain’t Nothing’ But a Party,” the party got funkier as the set went on. The Temptations “Papa Was A Rolling Stone” (with Haynes joining in), followed by a song once played by Little MIlton called “That’s What Love Will Make You Do” to Little Feat’s “Spanish Moon” and on through Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition.” Every ounce of energy remaining in the Asheville Civic Center was squeezed into the funky frenzy created by this outbreak of what writer Ishmael Reed called Jes Grew in his 1972 novel Mumbo Jumbo.
As the audience left the Civic Center a little after 3:00 AM on December 12th, they found that even the weather gods had succumbed to the Jes Grew. How else would one describe the uncharacteristic snowstorm that greeted them?
RON JACOBS is the author of The Way the Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His first novel, Short Order Frame Up, is published by Mainstay Press. His most recent book, titled Tripping Through the American Night is published as an ebook. He can be reached at: email@example.com