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(Compass 4430 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 4/19/2006)
It was more than 25 years ago when the so-called New Acoustic music scene emerged. Popularized by David Grisman from the San Francisco area, the style combined the instrumentation of bluegrass with considerable eclecticism, including a fair amount of jazz influence. This week new have a new release by a group also from the Bay area, whose music I suppose could be called "electric new acoustic," since it draws on many of the influences of the New Acoustic scene, and also features drums and occasional electric guitars.
The band is called the Waybacks, and their new CD, their fourth, is called From the Pasture to the Future.
The Waybacks have been together for about six years, releasing their debut CD called Devolver in 2000. They have been touring and gaining fans ever since. They are a quintet, but this CD was recorded in the period of transition between fiddle players. They now have a regular violinist for touring, but he was not on this CD. Instead, they bring in a trio of guest fiddlers, including one of the bright lights of the New Acoustic, scene Darol Anger.
The Waybacks otherwise consist of guitarist and mandolin player James Nash. Interestingly, he is a Nashville native, but came to the San Francisco to go to college at Stanford. He stayed on, playing in a bunch of rock bands over the years, including Occam's Razor. The other guitarist is Stevie Coyle, who has an interesting career, touring with a circus at an early age, and having such jobs as emceeing a killer whale show at an aquarium, and working an actor on stage and in television commercials. He also put in a stint with the great folk and political satire group the Foremen. On bass is Joe Kyle, Jr., originally from Washington, DC. He comes from a jazz background, absorbed from his father's large LP collection, though he has only been playing acoustic bass since 1990. On drums is Chuck Hamilton, originally from Montana who has also played in jazz groups. With the regular fiddle chair empty during the making of this album, three guest artists are brought in, including Gabe Witcher, Evan Price of the Turtle Island String Quartet, and the aforementioned Darol Anger of David Grisman's original group.
Their latest recording, their first with wider distribution, was produced by Lloyd Mains, known for his work with his daughter Natalie Mains, of the Dixie Chicks. Mains brings a roots rock sensibility to the group often, though there is still that acoustic undercurrent. The CD features an interesting mix of music, with mostly original compositions, but a couple of covers from unlikely places, tunes by the Kinks and Chick Corea. Most of the music is original, and the group shows its New Acoustic allegiance by including six instrumentals among its eleven tracks. And instrumentally, the band also demonstrates the kind of virtuosity for which the New Acoustic is known, with some rather complex arrangements. In a way, the Waybacks can be reminiscent of New Grass Revival, a group which was also very wide-ranging.
Leading off is a composition by Stevie Coyle called Petrified Man. It's one of the more electric tracks on the CD, with some twangy guitar played by James Nash. The song also is notable for the band's distinctive and clever lyrical style. <<>>
The first of the instrumentals is the CD's title track, From the Pasture to the Future. Gabe Witcher sits in on fiddle in this piece that epitomizes the Waybacks' "electric new acoustic" sound. It also highlights the respective member's skills as pickers. <<>>
The band's fun side definitely comes to the fore on their cover of a Kinks song Motorway, with lyrics typical of the complains of itinerant musicians. The addition of a tuba combined with slide guitar, along with Ray Davies' witty lyrics, plus some quotes from jazz standards like Benny Goodman's Seven Come Eleven makes this track probably the most memorable on the CD. <<>>
A rather different side of the band comes out on Bluebird Waltz, written by guest violinist Evan Price. It's an attractive and nicely played piece very much in an elegant old-fashioned style. <<>>
The Waybacks show a kind of singer-songwriter facet on the song Ninety-One, written and sung by James Nash. It reflects on life from the standpoint of someone not very old. <<>>
The band includes one traditional song, The Blacksmith, which they serve up with perhaps a bit too much energy. The playing is hot, but it's not the best fit for this song. <<>> But later on, the group breaks into a Celtic segment that is impressive. <<>>
The height of the Waybacks' New Acoustic influence comes on Armando's Rumba, a composition by jazz keyboard man Chick Corea, and a particular favorite of mine. The band's performance in outstanding. Evan Price again sits in on the fiddle. <<>>
The CD ends with an introspective instrumental by Steve Coyle called Strange Attractor, borrowing a turn from physics. Coyle adds a nice touch with what is described as acoustic lap steel guitar, though it does sound like a Dobro. <<>>
From the same area which gave us the beginnings of New Acoustic Music a quarter century ago comes an eclectic electric version of the music on From the Pasture to the Future, the new CD by the Bay area band the Waybacks. This fourth release from the group features a nice variety of material, including originals and covers, instrumental and vocal, and electric and more acoustic. The playing is first-rate, and every track has something interesting -- and different to offer. By the way, since the recording of the CD, the band has enlisted a new regular fiddle player, Warren Hood, son of notable Texas musician Champ Hood of Uncle Walt's Band.
Our sonic grade is an A-minus. Everything sounds very good except for the dynamic range. As is usually the case, there is too much compression, squashing loud and soft passages together.
The New Acoustic scene has not been nearly as prolific, in terms of number of album releases, lately as it was in its heyday. But the musicians remain active, though mostly steadfastly acoustic. Bela Fleck has taken the music and gone electric with it, though with his distinctive instrumentation. The Waybacks add significantly to the energy level of the New Acoustic scene, with their drums and occasional electric instrumentation, without really becoming a rock band. The result is a very worthwhile recording.
(c) Copyright 2006 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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