I’m a huge fan of everything Warren Haynes does; a friend of mine introduced me to Gov’t Mule many, many years ago and since then I’ve purchased every one of his CDs and attended every concert I can (solo, Mule, Allman Brothers).

When I moved to North Carolina, I was surprised to learn that he has a yearly charity concert called the Christmas Jam just a few hours’ drive away. I quickly bought tickets, found someone to watch the kids and my wife and I headed off to the show. We loved it.

In case you haven’t heard about this show before, here’s a little background. Warren is from Asheville, and every year he hosts a benefit concert for Habitat for Humanity. A bunch of bands come into town and essentially this show takes over the town. The show starts at 7 PM or so and runs until every band has had a chance to play. The first time we attended, Greg Allman started playing at 2 – we watched half of his show and went to bed (couldn’t stay up any longer) and I don’t know how much longer the show went on.

The show’s amazing and donates a bunch of money to the charity, but there are a lot of flaws in its execution, and that’s what this article is about.

General Implementation Flaws

Here are some of the general purpose issues with the implementation of the concert.

General Seating

For some bizarre reason, the concert promotors decided to setup this event as general seating. What this means is that if you buy a ticket to the show, there’s no guarantee you’ll have someplace to sit. Yep, first come, first served and it’s a freaking nightmare.

See, they sell out the show, so there’s multiple thousands of people there trying to find a place to sit. Now, if you want to stand for 8 hours or so, this isn’t a problem as you can come in and go right to the floor and stand in front of the stage all night listening to the bands. I’m an old guy, so I can no longer stand for hours at a time, so that option isn’t good for me.

So what happens, for those that aren’t content to stand on the floor (like me), is that most people get there early and stake out a place to sit in the stands. This isn’t that big of a deal except that when people stake out their seats, people generally leave one seat open on either side of them. Right? You don’t want to be crushed up against someone else all night (and it is a loooong night), so when you mark your seats, you make sure there’s space between you and the couple or group next to you. The problem with this is that since this is a sold out show, there are a LOT of people looking for seats. With the extra seats being open, what this means is that for every group of two people, three seats are consumed. Do the math, that means that a full 33% of the seats are sitting empty, but, don’t forget that it’s a sold out show. It’s a freaking nightmare.

Unless you’re a party of one, there’s no way you’re finding two seats open anywhere within the arena. If you’re two or more people, which most are, the only way you’re getting a seat is if you get there reeeeeally early or if you are willing to cajole and push people into shifting around in a particular row to open up enough seats for you. Did I mention it’s a freaking nightmare?

They could sell assigned seats and fix this entire problem, but every year there are hundreds or potentially thousands of folks wandering through the arena looking for a place to sit.

VIP Tickets

Now, when I first attended the show, there was an option to purchase VIP tickets at a slightly increased cost. I don’t remember how much it was, but it wasn’t that much, and it made it much easier to attend the show. With VIP tickets, there’s a dedicated area on the floor where you can stand. It’s off to the right, so you’re not near the middle of the stage, but you can still see and hear everything well. With the VIP standing area, it’s easier to come and go and still have a good view. I would argue that regular seats are actually better since you’re closer to the middle of the stage, but if you want to be close, you can’t get very close with regular tickets.

Another benefit of the VIP ticket is VIP Seating – the arena marks off a couple of sections for VIP ticket holders, and it’s easier to move between the seats and the floor. Not much easier as the same seating problem that applies to the general ticket holders apply to VIP ticket holders. 33% of the seats are empty between the groups.

Anyway, this was a great option the first year we attended the show, but the very next year they increased the VIP ticket price by about 6 times. Were it was a reasonable bump to get VIP tickets my first year, the next year it was hundreds of dollars more (I think it was about $300 more), so really not worth it.

What Went Ghastly Wrong this year

So, with that background in mind, what could have been so horrible about this year’s show to warrant this article. Let me count the ways…

Joe Bonamassa No-show

We decided after that first year that we would only go again if we had VIP tickets (it was too much of a better experience to pass on) but with the $300 increase, we just could never justify the expense. I watch my inbox every year hoping the lineup will make it worth the extra expense and this year they delivered. The announcement came, and there it was… Joe Bonamassa. My wife and I have been wanting to see him in concert, but there he was on the bill for Xmas Jam 2015 (#27 I think it was), and here was our chance. The show was supposed to include the Warren Haynes Band and the Tedeschi Trucks Band. With Joe included, there was a good chance three of the top 100 guitarists in the world would be on the stage at the same time. This was not to be missed.

I called my wife, told her the news and asked her if she wanted to go, even with the ENORMOUS price of the VIP tickets, she immediately agreed and I had tickets purchased in seconds then reserved a hotel room and arranged for my sister to take the kids for the weekend. We were all set.

Now, normally, the event adds additional bands as it gets closer to the show. So, I’d check back every so often to see what other bands would be there. Less than a week before the show, I checked the site only to learn that Joe Bonamassa wasn’t going to attend the show. Apparently he couldn’t make it.

I understand that schedules change and, as this is a benefit concert and NOBODY gets paid, that there’s a chance someone would cancel. The problem for us is that we ONLY bought tickets this year because of Joe Bonamassa and no other reason. The other issue is that they dropped him off the schedule without letting ticket holders know. You’d think in this modern time and with how much we use email to communicate that they would have considered emailing ticket holders to let them know of the change. Nope, nothing. If I’d not checked the schedule on the web site, there’s no way I could have known until I showed up for the show.

I’m pretty sure they had advance notice of his cancellation because none of the shirts have his name on them. I can only imagine that when you’re printing (I’m guessing here) 10,000 shirts, that you need quite a bit of lead time, and somehow the shirts miraculously didn’t have Joe’s name on them. So, I imagine the promotors sat on the information for a while before telling us while still letting the shirt people know. Sigh. Big failure here.

VIP Concert Shirts

As part of the VIP experience, they included a free concert shirt with VIP tickets. That’s a nice touch and saved me from having to buy one at the show (which I know I would). A few weeks before the show, they emailed VIP ticket holders (see, I knew they could email us and let us know about Joe not coming, but they apparently decided not to) and asked us to let them know what sizes we needed. I quickly responded and told them my sizes (for me and my wife) and expected to get what I ordered when I arrived at the show.

When I arrived at the VIP check-in, I learned that even though they asked for sizes and I provided them ours, they didn’t do anything with the information. Enough people didn’t reply that they just gave people whatever shirts they wanted when they showed up. I had to pick up my kids at school before heading across state to the show, so we got there late in the process, and didn’t get the shirts we ordered.

What they should have done is set aside the shirts for the people who requested specific sizes then distribute the remainder to the folks who didn’t. All they had when we arrived were XXL shirts, so my wife and I both got XXL shirts. Now, I can wear an XXL shirt, but that’s way, way too big for my wife. The extra money we paid for VIP tickets? Got my wife a shirt that was too big.

VIP Entrance

One of the things they promoted to VIP ticket holders was a special VIP entrance we could use to expedite access to the venue. Too bad they never told us where to find this entrance nor did they let the people managing the main line know; we asked several employees where it was only to get the information from a guest instead.

Clear communication problem; big failure here.

VIP Lounge

Another the thing promoted to VIP ticket holders was a special VIP lounge we could use at the show. Too bad they never told us where to find this entrance nor did they let the ushers know; we asked several employees where it was only to get the information from a guest instead.

Clear communication problem; big failure here.

VIP seating vs. Friends and Family Seating

Remember how I told you about this special VIP seating area? It’s on either side of the stage. What I didn’t notice until this year is that the VIP seats are almost the worst seats in the arena (except for those seats behind the stage). From the VIP seats, all you can see is the side of the stage. The stage is open, so you can ‘see’ everything, but only the side of the performers. The better seats? Oh, those are the Friends and Family seats. Apparently if you’re a friend of Warren’s or of the bands, you get better seats than the folks who paid hundreds of dollars for a ticket. Big failure here.

BlackBerry Smoke Letdown

I’m a fan of BlackBerry Smoke, and I was excited to hear they would be performing at the show. Unfortunately, they came on late in the evening (10 PM or 11PM? I can’t remember) right after the Tedeschi Trucks Band (TTB). TTB NAILED IT – they delivered a performance with great gusto and energy. Even though BlackBerry Smoke has songs with some great energy, for some bizarre reason they decided to deliver a set with their slowest and lowest energy songs. So, after getting all fired up and full of energy by the TTB performance, the whole arena almost fell asleep during the BlackBerry Smoke performance.

Note to BlackBerry Smoke: when performing at an all-night show, make sure you don’t put your audience to sleep.

Warren’s Attitude

Warren’s awesome. He delivers most performances with a smile and a neighborly attitude. Something must have been wrong with him this year, because he hardly said anything and didn’t have any energy when performing. He came out to play with several bands, but he didn’t look like he wanted to or enjoyed it; he seemed bored or disconnected. He was not a very gracious host.

The Value of the VIP Ticket

The VIP ticket is…cool, but not worth the money. For $300 more per ticket we got the following:

  • Access to a VIP-only Jam the night before (OK, this was way cool).
  • A pair of Xmas Jam socks (who cares).
  • A cool Xmas Jam poster (unfortunately, I’m 53 and no longer hang rock posters on my bedroom wall).
  • A concert shirt in the wrong size.
  • VIP entrance (OK, but hard to find).
  • VIP Lounge (OK, but not enough seats and the food was crappy).
  • VIP seating (good, but Friends and Family had much better seats; what’s up with that?).
  • VIP Standing Area (good, but for $300, don’t you think we could be center stage?).

Overall, we love the event and enjoyed hanging out in Asheville. We’re definitely coming again next year, but I doubt we’ll do the VIP tickets since it’s just not worth $300 more. We’ll be unhappy to miss the VIP concert, because that was a lot of fun, but I can save 75% of the ticket cost by not getting VIP tickets.

I hope someone assesses what they’re doing and works to make future events better.

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