These guys will take you Wayback

by Lee Adams

I first saw the Waybacks a couple of years ago when they played at my alma mater, Gardner-Webb University, at a bluegrass and folk concert featuring Doc Watson. The band had the same effect on me July 26 at Triad Stage as part of the EMF Fringe Festival as they did then. It wasn’t long after they started playing that I forgot I was there to cover a band and put down my camera to just watch and listen. Every now and then I’d pick it back up again to snap off a few frames and would jot down a few notes in my pad. But these guys really have a way of getting your mind off what you’re supposed to be doing.

The fast and furious fingers of lead guitarist James Nash along with his strong vocals, closed eyes and flying hair, reveal a passion and connectedness with music rarely seen in even the finest of musicians and it kept me off guard from my duties. That and the whimsy of guitarist Stevie Coyle, whose quick wit kept my eyes and ears peeled for something I was afraid I’d miss. The refined finger work of drummer Chuck Hamilton kept me in awe as I watched his lightening-fast rudimental playing. Bassist Joe Kyle Jr. had me wondering how a box with four strings could sing so melodically and young violinist Brittany Haas had me wondering how a person her age could learn to saw the fiddle so quickly and accurately for two long hours without ever missing a note.

‘“She’s going to play a tune for us,’” Coyle says to the audience as he refers to Haas. ‘“She’s quite the old-time fiddler ‘— ironic isn’t it?’” he asks.

My eyes were back and forth from instrument to instrument watching in wonder as the quintet masterfully wove melodic patterns in and out of one another and then BAM!, the whole machine would strike together on the same note bringing the train back into a fast-paced chug.

‘“Wow!’” is all I could say.

During an intermission in the show I sat near the staging area of the small Triad Stage looking carefully at the guitar strap hanging from its case, the soft, dark shells of the drums and the upright bass now laying silent on it’s side. Would these instruments jump up and begin to play themselves, I wondered? How could they lie so silent and still when just moments before so much energy had been thrust through them. I was tempted to touch them, just to see if I could feel some vibrating force that would run itself through my hand and up my arm making my heart skip a beat. A drummer myself I wanted to sit behind the kit, take the sticks in my hands and feel the same energy that had so powerfully rushed from Hamilton a few moments earlier. How could these instruments sit so silently, waiting patiently on the return of their masters?

Though the auditorium was only filled with a few hundred people, the Waybacks played to them as if they were at a coliseum filled with thousands of screaming fans. They flowed from bluegrass to folk to jazz and a waltz, and made each transition so smooth that it wasn’t until later you asked yourself how they could manage to play so many styles together in one set. They play the Appalachian-roots music so authentically that it takes you by surprise to learn the band is from San Francisco.

‘“Here’s a spiritual we learned in the hills and hollers of San Francisco,’” Coyle tells the audience.

He hums, closes his eyes and tilts his head back, and begins to sing like a new age meditator who can see into your soul. People begin to laugh as Coyle predicts an ugly aura for his imaginary partner and suggests it’s best for him to leave the imaginary person behind because there’s just no hope in sight for him. As the audiences chuckles he never breaks his composure, halfway closing his eyes as if in a deep state of meditation. The band reaches a chorus and Coyle tells the audience to sing along. There is laughing but no singing.

Coyle raise his head and shouts at the audience, ‘“ Sing dammit!’” Then he tries to recompose himself, ‘“I mean, thank you for joining us,’” he says.

The song ends and someone gets up to leave. ‘“Hey, where’re you going?’” he asks. ‘“You’ll really like this next song,’” he tells the man.

Coyle turns back to the audience to introduce the next song about a couple in love. ‘“You get her side of the story, then you get his side of the story,’” he says. ‘“Then they all die ’cause it’s a folk song and they have to.’”

During a last song with a long round of solos Nash breaks a guitar string. The crowd goes wild with shouts and cheers. After tuning while Coyle takes over the solo Nash decides to pick up the mandolin instead. The crowd cheers again and another round of energetic solos ensues. The audience rises to their feet for a standing ovation that nearly raises the roof off the place. ‘“Encore, encore,’” people shout. A young woman approaches Nash and, declaring it’s her birthday, asks for the broken string.

The band takes the stage one last time, playing a couple more songs. When the show is over and the smiling musicians exit the stage to another resounding standing ovation.

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