The Waybacks: Inspired Instrumentals, from Bluegrass to Honkytonk


Hear the inspired instrumentals of The Waybacks at Cafe Paradiso on October 29, 2008.

The first time I saw The Waybacks, Bobby Weir of the Grateful Dead was playing with them, and in a two-hour set, sliding through progressive bluegrass, swing, Grateful Dead staples, and closing with a roaring “19th Nervous Breakdown,” the band and about 50,000 people in Golden Gate Park were out of their minds.

Built around guitarist and band founder James Nash, who plays like Django Reinhardt and looks like Jim Morrison, featuring violinist Warren Hood who looks like he is fourteen and plays like Stephane Grappelli, driven by standup bassist Joe Kyle Jr. and drummer Chuck Hamilton, who collectively look like two guys from your bowling team, The Waybacks can flat-out play. Add in Bobby Weir, who has only gotten better and more prolific over the decades and at 60-plus still looks like the kid, and it was bound to be great.

A year or two later, having an opportunity to see The Waybacks again, this time at the Little Fox Theatre in Redwood City, I knew they would be good, but minus Bobby I wondered if they would get anywhere near the mayhem of the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival show in Golden Gate Park. No Bobby, small venue, didn’t matter—it was totally over the top, blew the roof off the joint. If anything, given the space to play within their own unit, they were more intricate and went far deeper into the load of material they have generated and cover. And, appropriately, the San Francisco-based band managed to close with the best version of St. Stephen I have heard since about 1972.

James Nash is in that rarefied air of a handful of guitar players who can play anything, blow through the boundaries, and all the while float in the joy of the experience. It is an interesting perspective that someone with that kind of talent has made a commitment to the eclectic phenomena that is The Waybacks. Some insight comes from a comment by Nash on the band’s website, “The whole spirit of improvisation—that’s always been the cornerstone of this band for me. Through all the stylistic changes and regardless of the instruments we’re playing, to me the fun of this band has always been that in some ways I can do whatever I feel like doing at any moment.”

Sounds like a good life choice, and the sound and feeling that comes out of the configuration of Nash, Hood, Kyle, and Hamilton validates the direction. In addition to Bobby Weir regularly playing with the band, further validity comes from the endless roster of cutting-edge artists who have sat in with The Waybacks—Gillian Welch, Bela Fleck, David Grisman, Sam Bush, Tony Rice, Rhonda Vincent, Abigail Washburn—to name a few. As much a recognition of their high-level of playing, this flow of energy and talent is a reflection of the pure exuberance of The Waybacks.

In a typical show, freely moving from their own material to whatever they are inspired to interpret, you are likely to experience bluegrass, jamgrass, honky tonk, Memphis soul, Charlie Parker, Parisian swing, classical, folk, and whatever comes to mind – at a recent Merlefest, one of the more prominent bluegrass festivals in the country, The Waybacks did a full set based on Led Zeppelin II.

Whatever they do, the consistency throughout is some of the best and most intelligent instrumental playing you will hear anywhere and always a blast. After seeing The Waybacks you’re going to want to bring your friends the next time for the joy of watching their delight.