The American band The Waybacks is a five piece group of exceptional musicians who are based in San Francisco. Chojo Jacques plays fiddle and, like guitarist James Nash, also plays mandolin. Joe Kyle Jr plays bass, Chuck Hamilton plays drums and percussion, and Stevie Coyle plays guitar. All members, except for Hamilton, share the vocals.
The Waybacks began their first Australian visit with performances at the National Folk Festival in Canberra this Easter. On the first of three CD’s they have released, there is an instruction to file under “Acoustic Mayhem”. They are a difficult band to categorize. Their music stampedes across many musical genres, including folk, western swing, bluegrass, blues and jazz. Original songs and instrumentals by band members Jacques, Nash and Coyle are supplemented by interpretations of compositions from writers as diverse as Blind Blake, Floyd Cramer, Archie Fisher, John Fahey, Woody Paul and Rev Gary Davis. The traditional music barrel is also raided to complete The Waybacks’ repertoire.
After seeing two of the band’s Canberra performances, I was reminded of the old cowboy song Don’t Fence Me In. It was not because there is evidence of cowboy music in the mix that is The Waybacks’ music, but because this band really seems to have no boundaries. They are proof that there are no limitations you can place on music. Indeed, their music clearly celebrates the necessity of risk taking when playing dynamic, innovative, and adventurous music. And the sum total of a Waybacks performance is entertainment.
The Waybacks at the National Folk Festival 2004A Waybacks performance is full-throttle all the way. This band had travelled far to play here and that was exactly what they intended doing. Except for the brief, delightfully engaging, quirky comments from Coyle between songs, it was music and song throughout.
The Waybacks are an extremely tight playing group of musicians. Listening to some of the instrumentals composed by Jacques easily demonstrated this quality. The frantic pace of JNPT in no way detracted from their flawless execution of this exciting piece of music. Gone Wayback was another example where the driving rhythm of the music helped accentuate the beautiful texture created by the lead playing of Jacques’ violin and Nash’s guitar playing.
The band’s cohesiveness seemed to come from their awareness of each other’s contribution to their total sound. This ability to listen to each other, as well as their amazing accuracy of playing, meant that their sound featured plenty of light and shade in its texture.
Some of the songs they interspersed in their Festival sets were most memorable. The James Nash original Been Around was one of the brightest, up-tempo “love lost” songs I’ve heard for a long time. The musical interplay between Jacques’ mandolin and Nash’s flat-picking guitar playing added to the magic of the song.
Another memorable performance piece was Compadres In The Old Sierra Madree, a song by Riders in the Sky’s Woody Paul. A wonderful song, The Waybacks’ arrangement just sparkled like the “jewels rare and old” that were referred to in the song. As Stevie Coyle sang the song, I was taken back to the old cowboy films I saw as a child at the Saturday matinees. The band’s interpretation of the traditional song The Blacksmith, with Coyle taking the lead vocals and the initial guitar melody, was a standout.
On Easter Sunday I met three of The Waybacks around teatime. That afternoon they had visited The Australian Museum. “It raised more questions than answers,” confided Stevie Coyle. I thought about that comment later. It could also in part be directed at The Waybacks. “How do you categorize their music?” “Why haven’t I heard of this before?” And more importantly: “When are they returning to Australia?”