Standing in the basement of the Harrah’s Cherokee Center in downtown Asheville, North Carolina, Billy F. Gibbons is recalling the moment he received his first guitar. He was only 13.
“It was Christmas Day,” the 73-year-old ZZ Top frontman tells Rolling Stone. “[All these years later], there’s so many different ways to remain creative and the expressiveness seems to remain as a challenge — it’s exciting.”
Gibbons was part of the guitar summit (including a number of players on Rolling Stone‘s list of the 250 Greatest Guitarists of All Time) that erupted onstage Saturday evening during the annual Christmas Jam benefit concert, spearheaded by Warren Haynes, an Asheville native and six-string ace for the Allman Brothers Band and Gov’t Mule.
“There’s something about an electric guitar that just hits you,” Haynes says. “It’s the most versatile of all the instruments because you can [create] thousands of sounds. You’re emulating the human voice when you’re playing electric guitar. I’m really trying to get a sound that matches my voice.”
For its 32nd installment, Haynes invited Slash & Myles Kennedy, Jason Bonham’s Led Zeppelin Experience, Clutch, Karina Rykman, and American Babies. Special guests also included George Porter Jr., John Medeski, and Mike Barnes.
A fundraiser for the Asheville area Habitat for Humanity and BeLoved Asheville, Christmas Jam emerged from humble beginnings in small clubs around the city to become an arena event for thousands each December. With over $2.8 million raised throughout the years, the concert has led to the construction of more than 50 homes for local residents in need.
“To be able to do what we’re doing here and turn it into building houses for people that can’t afford homes? That’s fantastic,” Haynes says. “We’re just doing what we love. I have as much fun playing music at Christmas Jam as any other night of the year, in some ways more, because the camaraderie here is so amazing.”
Kicking off the festivities was a rare appearance by indie-rockers American Babies. The Philadelphia act features guitarist Tom Hamilton and drummer Joe Russo, both of whom are in Russo’s famed Almost Dead ensemble. Haynes joined American Babies at the end of the set for a searing take on Screaming Trees’ grunge anthem “Nearly Lost You.”
“I started playing guitar out in clubs when I was 12. It’s just what you did. It’s a vocation — this is your role in society,” Hamilton says. “I didn’t care when I was homeless. I didn’t care when I was a plumber. I don’t necessarily care now — I just want to be able to make [music].”
First appearing at one of the most legendary installments of Christmas Jam, in 2018, as part of Marco Benevento’s group, bassist Karina Rykman took the stage this go-round fronting her power rock trio.
“I’m so obsessed with power trios. I’m a huge Rush and Police fan,” Rykman says. “As a bass player, you can’t overdo it because you have the leeway to fill a lot of space if you want to. And I want to.”
In that similar spirit of thunderous bass and percussion, Jason Bonham’s Led Zeppelin Experience tore through its Christmas Jam debut with fiery tributes (“When the Levee Breaks,” “Ramble On”) to Bonham’s late father, Zeppelin drummer John Bonham.
“[My band] was never intentionally done to be really taken seriously. It was done as a fun thing to go do with your friends, to play the music of Led Zeppelin,” says Bonham, who will join Sammy Hagar and Joe Satriani on tour this summer for a celebration of Van Halen music. “And suddenly it took on a life of its own. Once I realized it wasn’t about stories of my dad or growing up, I realized it was [about the fans] saying thank you. It’s a celebration of this music.”
Nearing the midnight hour, a blitzkrieg of electric guitars overtook the arena as Gibbons, Slash, and Haynes joined forces with Gov’t Mule, Russo, Porter, Medeski, and a slew of other featured guests throughout the final sets. One of the highlights was an arena-singalong of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Simple Man.”
Elsewhere, Gibbons dug into his ZZ Top catalog (“Jesus Just Left Chicago,” “Sharp Dressed Man”), while Slash & Myles Kennedy weaved through a barrage of signature classic rock melodies (“Feel Like Makin’ Love,” “You Shook Me All Night Long,” “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”). A stirring cover of Temple of the Dog’s “Hunger Strike” also featured a tease of Traffic’s “Dear Mr. Fantasy.”
“What I still love about the guitar is… it’s still this very sexy thing that I’m very attracted to visually. I love the way guitars sound, I love playing guitar. It’s never-ending. It just keeps producing,” Slash says. “You can never master the guitar. You’re always discovering new stuff.”
Tying a poignant bow on the whirlwind holiday extravaganza, Haynes’ delivered his uplifting “Soulshine” with whoever was within arm’s reach to plug in and rock out.
“Everybody is here voluntarily and donating their time, and the music that happens as a result is very special,” Haynes says. “Because in the back of all of our minds is this spark that made us all start playing in the first place — the joy of it.”