Built around the interplay between James Nash’s blistering guitar and Warren Hood’s scorching fiddle, the Waybacks’ music can certainly sound rustic, but what they dish out is by no means old-school. The band’s charismatic approach and love of improvisation ensures that the sounds emanating from their traditional instruments are fresh, dynamic, and vibrant. Since forming more than a decade ago, the San Francisco-based four-piece have become staples at Americana festivals like Hardly Strictly Bluegrass and MerleFest. In fact, it was during a performance at MerleFest that the band’s affinity for lateral thinking really started to get critics’ heads turning. When the Waybacks take to the stage of Sings Like Hell this Saturday night, don’t be surprised if they make the place sizzle. Brett Leigh Dicks recently spoke with the Waybacks’ founder, James Nash.
With summer here, I suspect the Waybacks are about to hit the festival circuit. Are you looking forward to heading outside and playing? Oh, yeah. Festivals are great for us. For one, it’s nice to be out of the bars and playing outside. It’s also great to play multiple bills like that because we have musician friends from other states, and even other countries, whom we only see when we’re all together like that. We’ll take any excuse to jam with them, so that’s a highlight of playing a festival for us.
One of the talking points of your recent appearances at MerleFest has been the Hillside Album Hour, where you play a classic rock album in its entirety. What inspired you to take on songs of the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin? That’s an enormous festival with 80,000 people during four days. And we played some earlier shows and then had a show later in the weekend. When there are so many amazingly talented bands and artists, it becomes harder and harder to really do anything unique. And, because it was toward the end of the weekend and people had already seen so much great music, we thought, “Why don’t we do something completely out of left field?” and came up with the Hillside Album Hour concept of getting together a bunch of guests and learning a whole record and covering it.
On your most recent Hillside Album Hour, you guys tackled the Rolling Stone’s Sticky Fingers and had Emmylou Harris join you for “Wild Horses.” Given her musical connection to Gram Parsons, that must have been quite a moment. For starters, I was real nervous even asking her whether she would do that song with us or not. Both because she is Emmylou Harris and she is an idol of mine and because of the personal connection that song has to her with Gram Parsons. I knew it would be particularly poignant if she was willing to do it, but I just had no idea whether she would be excited about playing with a bunch of guys she didn’t know. But I did ask and she said yes, and while we were sitting around backstage working up the song, one of the things she mentioned was that she thought this might be the most beautiful ballad ever written.
You seem to be working a few electric instruments into the more traditional Waybacks instrumentation lately. How do the dynamics differ between acoustic and electric instrumentation? In some ways they’re not so different. When we play an acoustic show, we’re doing it with pickups and instrument-mounted microphones and all this technology that allows us to get the acoustic instruments up at a loud volume. Drum kits and acoustic guitars were never really meant to be played together; that started in the recording studio and it’s only since stage technology has evolved that it’s possible to plug in an acoustic guitar and play. I guess what I’m getting at here is, when we play acoustic, it’s still loud!
The Waybacks play Sings Like Hell at the Lobero Theatre (33 E. Canon Perdido St.) with Jason Spooner this Saturday, June 20, at 8 p.m. Call 963-0761 or visit singslikehell.com for info.