Unexpected riches — like ordering basic cable but getting just about every channel there is — don’t come too often. For the Waybacks, once is enough. All the San Francisco-based band asked for was a fiddle player. What they got was 25-year old Austin, Texas, native Warren Hood, a skilled fiddler and considerably more besides.
He’s a classically trained Berklee School of Music graduate with a Texas folk pedigree (his dad was the late Champ Hood of Uncle Walt’s Band), and the possessor of solid instincts, a supple voice, and a pleasing songwriting touch to boot. The Waybacks may not have known it at the time, but those were the remaining ingredients they needed to strike just the right musical balance.
“We really asked him to join this band primarily because he was such a great fiddle player,” says Waybacks guitarist, songwriter and vocalist James Nash. “And then we heard him sing and we were like, ‘Wow, he’s a great singer, so this is going to be really cool.’ Warren has been revealing his talents to us since we met him.”
Hood had his reasons for taking the gig over a better-paying one with Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis. “I said, ‘The only way I’d be interested is if I’m an equal member and I get to sing my own songs and all that stuff,’” he says. “‘I’m not just going to join up and be your fiddle player.’ I made a lot more money with Bruce and Kelly than I do with the Waybacks, but this is a lot more important. It’s much more fulfilling to play in a band than just be a side guy.”
Needless to say, things have changed since they released From The Pasture To The Future in 2006. Hood joined officially (he’d previously filled in, and wasn’t on the last album), and fingerstyle guitarist, vocalist and songwriter Stevie Coyle departed amiably. Ask Nash why, and you’ll get the patented “artistic differences” answer. But it actually seems genuine.
“He’s always had a lot of interest in playing solo pieces,” Nash relates. “I really think that it’s kind of worked out for the better because that is what he’s out doing. And our sound has gone a little more in the rock and pop direction that wasn’t jiving as much with what he wanted to do.”
Nash and the band’s nimble, jazz-schooled rhythm section (drummer Chuck Hamilton and double bassist Joe Kyle Jr.) are intact, but the quartet sounds like a different band on Loaded. Half the tracks on Future were instrumentals, but there’s only one on this set: “Black Cat”, a moody, gypsy-jazz-style Hood composition.
They’re reserving a lot of their creative musical outbursts for the stage. “I like albums and songs to be pretty concise,” Hood says. “I like there to be a reason for everything, not just a solo for the sake of letting the soloist show off his chops. Live, it’s much more fun to just go off and play a song that on the record might be three minutes, but live we might stretch it out to ten minutes.”
Nash and Hood wrote all the songs on Loaded, a Waybacks first. And to put it simply, there are flat-out more lyrics. “We had more to say on this record, I think, was really what it came down to,” Nash says.
So they subtracted words elsewhere. “Having so much lyrical content in the songs, we feel like we don’t need to talk as much at the shows,” Nash explains. “If you play a bunch of instrumental songs in a row — as much time as I’ve spent in my life working on playing instruments and love doing it — there is kind of a barrier that you never get across with language.”
Gone too is Coyle’s oddball humor and joke-telling. “That’s been Steve’s thing,” Nash says. “At this point we feel like we’re the four of us, and we’re going to be true to that and not try to copy what he used to do, which was so integral to his personality. We don’t have anybody in the band now who really wants to get up there and tell jokes.”
Eclecticism and virtuosity have been Waybacks calling cards. That hasn’t changed. Now those elements are filtered through the dynamic tension between Nash’s energetic grooves and vivid, sometimes political storytelling, and Hoods’ easygoing, vintage folk and blues and jazz-informed vibe. Nash leans aggressively into the title track’s percolating blues-rock drive; one track later, Hood saunters through the gently swinging “Savannah”. Hood can croon and muster a suave vibrato, whereas Nash sings with more of an edge.
Musically they’re near-perfect foils. “James and I really couldn’t be coming from more different places,” Hood says. ‘The thing is, both of us really like playing different genres. So whenever I bring in a country or blues tune, James likes to do that, and whenever he brings in one of his tunes, I try to figure out, ‘How am I going to make fiddle apply to this?’ Most of what he writes, and even what I write, is really not the most fiddle-friendly of music. You’ve kind of got to find a way to make it fit.”