November 30, 2023

The indefatigable Warren Haynes, front man of Gov’t Mule and former Allman Bros alumnus, is not one to sit around and take it easy. When he and the band are not producing new music, they are reproducing old music – take their Pink Floyd and Rolling Stones tributes Dark Side Of The Mule and Stoned Side Of The Mule as examples. Having already released the album Peace… Like A River this year, Haynes has set himself to dusting off some recent material and presenting it for sale. For the past 30 years and more, Haynes has been organising a Christmas Jam in his home town of Asheville, North Carolina, gathering local musicians in behalf of the Asheville Area Habitat for Humanity, for which it has so far raised nearly 3 million dollars. Usually, these are one-day affairs, sometimes they spread over two days, and more often than not, they are recorded and released in some form or other.

2018 was the Jam’s 30th anniversary, a two-day bash; they took a break in 2019 and were fully intending to fire up again in 2020, until the Covid lockdown put a stop to that plan, as it did to so many musicians’ intentions. The Jam re-emerged in 2022, but that iconic 30th anniversary 2018 concert is now being released under the (slightly confusing) title The Benefit Concert Volume 20, in an insane number of variants. A total of 50 tracks are available, spread over four double-LP sets distinguishable by different colour sleeves and vinyls. (Note that Dave Grohl’s 36-minute prog-grunge epic instrumental Play is split over two sides of vinyl, giving the illusion of 51 tracks overall.) A 19 track 2 CD set with a single DVD is also available; one of the songs on the DVD (Medicine by Grace Potter And The Nocturnals), does not appear on either of the CDs. An expanded version gives 31 tracks on 3 CDs, each pushed to the 75 minute limit, plus the full 50-song performance spread over two Blu-Ray discs. Or one can opt for the digital download version, which includes the same 31 tracks as the 3 CD set – this is the version I am reviewing here.

The different sets are not themed in any noticeable way; the whole concert is an enigmatic mix of country, art-rock, fusion jam, blues and acoustic folk. All versions except the full Blu-Ray kick off with keyboard wiz Marco Benevento’s instrumental Greenpoint, which is a melodic, trancy piece and includes an extract from Tom’s Diner by Suzanne Vega and some great Duane Allman-style piano. Blue-Ray watchers are treated to three solo songs by Warren Haynes before this, but otherwise, he doesn’t make an appearance until midway through the concert. The sandpaper-voiced Jamey Johnson is up next, with a full country band. I love his ballad In Colour, which consists of some young gun going through his grandad’s photo collection, including black and white photos taken at key points in the man’s life; with his brothers in arms during the war, on his wedding day etc. ‘You should have seen it in colour,’ opines the old man. Ron Holloway plays a screaming sax guest spot with Grace Potter; Mike Gordon presents a funky rendition of Aerosmith’s Sweet Emotion; the rest of CD 1 is represented by two songs from Jim James, and three by Eric Church.

Warren Haynes (left) with Dave Grohl

The big guns come out for the second CD, with Joe Bonamassa going into full classic rock mode for Spanish Boots, and out-and-out slow blues for a minor key version of I Can’t Quit You Baby. You could hear a pin drop when he hushes down to almost nothing; the sound goes to studio quality and he plays some real virtuoso soloing. Man, that boy can play. Dave Grohl follows with the aforementioned half-hour epic Play, which is a surprise, firstly because it’s so complex, and secondly because he doesn’t exercise his lavish tonsils in this one at all – still, Gov’t Mule come on for three songs, and Dave sings backing on their excellent, hard-rocking version of Neil Young’s Rockin’ In The Free World.

The third CD is largely – but not wholly – acoustic, and includes a truly excellent version of Fleetwood Mac’s Gold Dust Woman, with Warren Haynes, Jim James and Grace Potter singing over Haynes’ guitar. This is the single that accompanies the album, and can be heard at the foot of this page, below the concert teaser video. Twangy-voiced Kevn Kinney makes an appearance at the front of the enigmatically-named Christmas Jam Band, and Asheville native Tyler Ramsey plays a tremendous solo electric guitar and vocal piece named 1000 Black Birds, which runs as an instrumental with a flavour of jazz maestro Bill Frisell, before the vocals come in at 3½ minutes. Edwin McCain sings an acoustic ballad, and then by total contrast, a band named Planet Of The Abts, featuring members of Gov’t Mule, plays a full-on hard rock number named I’m Telling You.

Then, at last, Dave Grohl wheels out his vocal chords to play the Foo Fighters classic Times Like These as a duet with Warren Haynes, and a great, acoustic version of Everlong by himself. Gov’t Mule play out the rest of the set on a series of Pink Floyd covers, Us And Them, Any Colour You Like, and Comfortably Numb, which features guitarist T-Bone Anderson from Planet Of The Abts. The whole melange is a beguiling mix of genres and styles, and excellently organised and curated by Haynes, without loads of waffle between numbers, and everyone is on top form. The digital format I had access to is a little frustrating, as there is a lot of cross-pollination between bands, and guest vocalists come and go without any clue who they are. OK, it’s a long haul at 4 hours 45 minutes, or a lot longer for the full Blu-Ray. But what else are you going to do with a star-studded concert like this? It has to be released, and I’m glad to have heard it.

Warren Haynes: The Benefit Concert Volume 20 is released on 8 December 2023 via Evil Teen Records/Mascot Label Group in the following formats:

Four different double vinyl volumes (in different colours: purple, orange, blue, red), 2-CD + DVD set, 3-CD + 2 Blu-ray set, digital-only format. Bundles are also available to pre-order.