Warren Haynes has played some of the biggest stages in the world, but his love of concerts started in his hometown of Asheville, North Carolina. “When I was fourteen, I used to sneak into this little club on Merrimon Avenue, Caesar’s Parlor, and watch live music,” says the Grammy-winning guitarist, singer, and songwriter. “Eventually, word got out that I played guitar and they pulled me up on stage. I got hooked on playing in front of a live audience. I started doing it all the time.” That early experience led to Haynes joining David Allan Coe on the road by age twenty, then stints playing guitar for the Dickey Betts Band and the Allman Brothers Band before founding his own project, Gov’t Mule, in 1994. Known as much for their improvisational chops as for their songwriting and instrumental dexterity, the band has since released nine studio albums and many more live recordings.
Gov’t Mule’s latest, Bring on the Music: Live at the Capitol Theatre, features two-discs (and an accompanying concert film) that pull from a two-night run of shows in New York in April of 2018. The album captures an energy that Haynes says simply can’t be replicated in a recording studio. “I’m very proud of our studio records, but they’re really like blueprints for where the songs might go in the future,” Haynes says. “When you play improvisational music like we do, being lucky enough to have a great audience is a big important part of the overall picture—one we don’t take for granted.”
Perhaps that’s why Haynes has stayed so connected with the music-loving mountain town where he first took the stage—he still calls the Asheville area home. Here, the prolific guitar player gives us the lowdown on the concert spots he loves best.
“Some of my favorite venues in Asheville are the places where I play most often” he says. When you’re Warren Haynes, those also tend to be the biggest rooms in town—both of which are housed in the U.S. Cellular Center (formerly known as the Asheville Civic Center). “I grew up seeing a lot of amazing shows in that building,” he says. “Now, to perform there year after year after year is a big thrill.” Faithful fans will recognize the larger of the two rooms: The ExploreAsheville.com Arena hosts Haynes’s annual Christmas Jam, a night of all-star collaborative performances that benefits Habitat for Humanity of Asheville. “You can feel the energy from the entire audience, but you still have a little intimacy that goes along with a smaller venue,” Haynes says of the arena.
Just down the hallway lies the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium, a 2,400-seat theater where Haynes recently performed with the Asheville Symphony. “It’s a little bit more of a listening room,” he explains. The venue, which was originally called the Municipal Auditorium when it opened just after the Great Depression, in 1940, underwent renovations and was renamed for the Asheville-born novelist in 1975. “The first few shows I ever saw, when I was twelve, thirteen, fourteen, were there, so there’s a history for me—as well as a history for Asheville.”
“When I was growing up, every soul singer played the Orange Peel,” Haynes says of the beloved standing-room-only venue that opened in the 1960s inside a former skating rink on Biltmore Avenue. But despite appearances from bands like the Commodores, the club shut down before the budding guitarist was even old enough to (y’know, legally) get in, and the building sat empty for decades before reopening in 2002. “They still have the original sign, and the vibe of that original place is still there,” Haynes says. “That place has a real energy about it.” This year’s roster of shows includes Robert Earl Keen, Mandolin Orange, and the Alabama Shakes’ Brittany Howard.
Still, you don’t have to buy a ticket to find great music downtown. Local musicians play on street corners and in dive bars—an adolescent Haynes was known to perform at pool parties and community walkathons. These days, his favorite neighborhood music spot is Jack of the Wood, a pub on Patton Avenue specializing in English ales and acoustic jam sessions. “It’s a very intimate place to have a drink and catch some cool regional music,” Haynes says. “There’s live music every night, and it leans more toward singer-songwriters and Appalachian-style string music.”
Bonus: Nosh Pits
Jack of the Wood and plenty of live music joints serve up sandwiches and pub fare, but don’t expect to spot Haynes chowing down mid-set. “I’m not much on mixing music and eating,” he says with a chuckle. “When I’m watching a show, I want to pay attention—and as a performer, I sympathize with people performing while I’m eating.” His go-to grub before concerts is Buxton Hall Barbecue, a staple that’s right around the corner from the Orange Peel. “They may not have music,” he says, “but they’re known worldwide for their whole hog North Carolina barbecue.” For those who do like to snack mid-show, Haynes advises visitors to keep an eye out for Mountain View BBQ & Deli, an operation based down the road in Columbus, North Carolina, that pops up around town often. “They have a food truck at all the outdoor summer shows,” he says, citing events at breweries such as Highland and Pisgah, “and excellent brisket tacos.”