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Bargaining for Salvation in the Devil’s Arena

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Jes’ grew—that phenomenon described to modern America by the writer Ishmael Reed in his book Mumbo Jumbo—is a movement that involves, among other things, “chronic questioning of authority, and uncontrollable shaking of the hips and ass.” For the past twenty-eight years, a minor outbreak of this experience some consider a sickness attacks the North Carolina mountain town of Asheville. Onetime local guitarist Warren Haynes invites a number of his friends and musical collaborators to play a long night at a local arena. The result is an exciting and often innovative show presenting combinations of artists playing blues, rock and country standards along with their own signature tunes. Often, there are Christian holy rollers outside the event holding signs decrying the sinners within.

Called the Xmas Jam, this year’s overnight concert took place on Saturday December 10th and included a typically broad range of musicians from the aforementioned genres. Certain artists played short sets with their own band, but the real aspect of these shows are the collaborative sessions that take place between the numerous artists on stage. This year featured fiddler Allison Kraus playing and singing with country outlaw Jamie Johnson early in the evening and with Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir in a duet later in the evening. The most unusual offering from Johnson and Kraus was the old Eddy Arnold tune “Make the World Go Away,” while the duet with Weir was the traditional ballad the Dead made their own back in the 1960s, “Peggy-O.”

Speaking of Weir, in the past few years the cultural phenomenon that was and is the Grateful Dead has morphed into a force without parallel. Constantly reinventing the songs that make up its catalog, the various surviving members of the band have formed various ensembles and joined musicians across the spectrum reinterpreting and reimagining the music that makes that catalog transcendent of time and origin. No band member has done this more than rhythm guitarist Bob Weir. The Xmas Jam performance was no exception. Coming onto the stage during the funky set by George Porter, Jr and Marcus King, Weir helped the group already there turn the Garcia-Hunter tune “Sugaree” into a rhythm and blues blazer. Next was a fast-paced and very funky take on the New Orleans standard “Aiko Aiko.” When Weir came back, it was a different group of musicians on hand, including Warren Haynes and Branford Marsalis. Among the tunes this ensemble played was a thirteen minute version of the Dead standard “Eyes of the World,” featuring Marsalis on saxophone.

Don Was is known for his production abilities over the years. Recently, he has taken up producing tribute concerts. These shows involve gathering a variety of musicians known and not-so-well-known, finding a venue and playing songs identified with a particular musician. Two of Was’s most recent tributes were to Emmylou Harris and Jerry Garcia. His current company is called a Tribute to the Last Waltz—the famous last concert of the Band forty years ago in San Francisco. This group was next on the bill. Featuring Was, keyboardist John Medeski, Michael McDonald (Doobie Bros.), Weir, Alison Kraus, Haynes and a variety of other musicians from previous ensembles of the night, this band provided new takes on a number of songs from the original concert, including Neil Young’s “Helpless,” the blues standard “Further On Up the Road,” and the classic “The Weight.”

One of the most interesting performers of the night was pianist Holly Bowling. Bowling opened the night with a solo rendition of the Grateful Dead’s “The Other One.” Her take on this and other rock and blues tunes throughout the night (usually between sets) was part concert pianist and part rock and roll. Hitting dynamic peaks and valleys, her playing provided a perfect musical and emotional interlude and intersection between the acts. Any solo piano player that can get a fair number of people in a 7000-member audience moving their feet is not just any solo piano player.

According to the legend, Jes’ Grew comes and goes. Its peaks in the past one hundred years include the jazz age and the age of Rock and roll and Rhythm and Blues. One might argue that certain dance music of the current period might also be a hearkening of the Jes’ Grew infestation, but I think its insistence on mechanization renders its inclusion unlikely. However, Jes’ Grew will never die. And it gestates in festivals like Warren Haynes annual benefit show in Asheville, North Carolina. If it doesn’t save your soul, at least it makes you feel like living for another day.

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Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. His latest offering is a pamphlet titled Capitalism: Is the Problem.  He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

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