At first glance, the opening act for this year’s performance series at Western Carolina University might appear to be a nod to the area’s traditional music. It’s a bluegrass band, after all.
Except that The HillBenders are no ordinary string band, and the show will be an acoustic version of The Who’s classic rock opera, “Tommy.”
The Springfield, Missouri-based HillBenders will take the Bardo Arts Center stage at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 7, to perform “The Who’s Tommy: A Bluegrass Opry,” a 75-minute concert that will cover the original album from start to finish.
Released in 2015, The HillBenders’ album is a full-length bluegrass tribute conceived and produced by SXSW (South By Southwest, a major music festival in Austin, Texas) co-founder and longtime musician/producer Louis Meyers.
Band members showcased their acoustic take on “Tommy” during the 2015 SXSW, shortly before Compass Records released the album, and produced one of that year’s festival’s most talked about shows.
“Well worth standing in the rain to hear,” said Billboard’s Gary Graff. “A phenomenal and brilliantly executed homage,” said Raleigh News & Observer reviewer, David Menconi. “You haven’t heard ‘Acid Queen’ until you’ve seen it sung by a bearded man with a mandolin,” said Rolling Stone, who named it among the 50 Best Things We Saw at SXSW 2015.
“Tommy” was composed by guitarist Pete Townshend of The Who as a rock opera that tells the story about a deaf, dumb and blind boy, including his experiences with life and the relationship with his family. The original album has sold 20 million copies and has been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame for “historical, artistic and significant value.” In 2003, Rolling Stone magazine ranked “Tommy” number 96 on its list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.
Meyers looked for the right band to pull off this high wire bluegrass approach for several decades before finding the right mix of musicianship and vocals in The HillBenders.
“We wanted to pair bluegrass with the other music we grew up with – rock and roll,” says the band’s Nolan Lawrence, who plays mandolin and sings the parts of “Tommy” made famous by The Who’s charismatic lead singer Roger Daltrey.
A reviewer for the New York Music Daily suggested in 2015 that nothing is lost in the translation from rock to bluegrass. “The HillBenders’ ‘Tommy: A Bluegrass Opry,’ is an impressively faithful newgrass take on The Who. It’s tempting to say that audiences in 2015 will probably prefer the HillBenders’ version over The Who’s original. What’s most surprising about the new album is how well the incidental music between the radio hits translates to bluegrass – and, quite frankly, how much the band improves it. A prime example is ‘Sparks,’ where the Dobro and banjo really soar. What’s less surprising is how well the HillBenders do the hits. For one, just the absence of Roger Daltrey’s florid vocals is a big plus. And while it’s probably unfair to weigh how much more texture, dynamics and flair guitarist Jim Rea, mandolinist Nolan Lawrence, Dobro player Chad Graves and banjo player Mark Cassidy add, by comparison to all of Pete Townshend’s overdubs, the ultimate result is that the HillBenders’ version is arguably even more epic. And what more could you possibly want from a rock opera? That probably explains why Townshend has given his blessing to the album.
Hits are powerful
“The one thing that it doesn’t offer is a blockbuster rhythm section, which makes sense: Gary Rea is a perfectly good bluegrass bassist, eschewing John Entwhistle’s sinewy attack for a purist old-school approach. And the band sidesteps the issue of trying to match any of Keith Moon’s contributions (on drums), probably a wise choice. They also don’t attempt to clarify or expand on the original’s bare-bones plot: best to look at this as a catchy collection of newgrass pop songs imbued with tongue-in-cheek humor and played with first-class chops, rather than any kind of profound statement. And the hits are a revelation. You can understand the lyrics to ‘Pinball Wizard.’ ‘Go to the Mirror’ matches the junior existentialist angst of the original, and ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It’ has even more defiance. After all this, ironically, the original seems pretty lightweight,” the New York Music Daily reviewer said.
The Cafe caught up with HillBender Jim Rea by telephone last week, learning that the band still has its five original members and will have been together 10 years in April. After reading the above review that discussed Who drummer Keith Moon, I asked Jim if The HillBenders had considered adding drums before taking on a rock classic.
“We talked about it as a band, but Louis Meyers wanted to see an all-acoustic version,” Jim said. “Drums as played by Keith Moon were a big part of The Who’s sound, but bluegrass instruments are very percussive. We call our Dobro player, Chad Graves, the ‘Keith Moon of the Dobro.’’’
The right band
According to Jim, Meyers plays banjo and got the idea for a bluegrass “Tommy” from “noodling around” with some of the rock opera’s melodies. He decided the entire album would work acoustically and started looking for the right band to perform it. The HillBenders first met Meyers at an International Bluegrass Music Association conference and then would run into him occasionally at festivals. “We had friends in common and would run into him two or three times a year,” Jim said.
Eventually, Meyers reached out to The HillBenders because he thought they had enough of a rock and roll attitude.
“We’ve never been a straight up bluegrass band,” Jim said. “I grew up on rock and roll, and most of the other band members come from varied backgrounds as well.”
Jim was familiar with The Who’s “Tommy” and was excited at the prospect of The HillBenders recording it. He came up with acoustic arrangements for a couple of its songs, sent them to Meyers, and they decided to make the record.
As it turns out, only one HillBender, Chad Graves, grew up playing bluegrass.
“We’re not one of your hay-bale kicking bluegrass bands,” said 36-year-old Jim, who’s played bluegrass for close to 20 years now. “Bluegrass is a kind of music that will bite you and you have to scratch that itch,” he said.
Jim sings most of the parts Townshend performed in The Who’s recording of “Tommy,” and told me that Lawrence, who has the more powerful vocals, studied opera in college.
Since their “Bluegrass Opry” was released in 2015, the band has found themselves playing more often in spaces like the Bardo Center than at bluegrass festivals.
“‘Tommy’ lends itself to those types of settings,” Jim said. “We’ve gotten used to diverse audiences where people are not necessarily bluegrass fans. But the show will be a great re-imagining of the first rock opera. There will be some audience participation, and we’ll tell the story along the way, for those who aren’t familiar with the original. It will be bluegrass meets rock and roll, which makes for some high energy bluegrass.
Bassist Gary Rea is Jim’s cousin. Before switching over to bluegrass, he toured with the Grateful Dead and played in jam bands. Banjo player Cassidy grew up in Southern California and was more into punk and rock until a teacher gave him a tape of bluegrass music.
The HillBenders premiered their bluegrass “Tommy” at The Station Inn in Nashville two years ago, one night before a concert by The Who in the same city. Meyers arranged for The HillBenders to attend the show and go backstage to meet Townshend afterward.
“It was great,” Jim said. “Pete had already heard the album and sent his approval for our project. Meeting him was a big moment and a validation for our album; having his blessing sure did help.”
The HillBenders have been active on the bluegrass scene since 2008, releasing their debut album “Down to My Last Dollar” in 2010, followed by “Can You Hear Me?” in 2012. They are regulars on the festival circuit with appearances at Telluride Bluegrass Festival, RockyGrass, the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival, Walnut Valley Festival, the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Fan Fest and many others. The quintet won the Telluride Bluegrass Band Competition in 2009, as well as first place in the National Single Microphone Championships.
Next week’s show openers, Jackson County’s Junior Appalachian Musicians, are participants in an after-school program for children in grades 4-8 and beyond that introduces music through small group instruction on instruments common to the Appalachian region, such as fiddle, banjo and guitar. Each JAM program across the region is individually operated and funded.
Tickets for The HillBenders’ Sept. 7 concert are $25 for the general public. For tickets and further information, visit bardoartscenter.wcu.edu or call 828-227-2479.
Lynn Hotaling was editor of The Sylva Herald for 18 years, retiring in January 2016. She is the author of two books on local history.