Pete Townshend has proven a musical visionary since he penned The Who’s first of two rock opera releases, Tommy, in 1969 (the other being Quadrophenia, in 1973), but could the guitarist/vocalist have foreseen Tommy: A Bluegrass Opry, the 2015 Compass Records release by Springfield, Mo.-based quintet The HillBenders?
Perhaps. Both the group’s latest recording and its performance of The Who’s fourth release in its entirety (with the exception of its 10-minute instrumental “Underture”), at a half-full Watson B. Duncan Theater at Palm Beach State College in Lake Worth on April 5, featured the familiar strains of the classic double album — minus Keith Moon’s frenetic drumming and the textural additions of the London Symphony Orchestra.
Instead, HillBenders guitarist Jim Rea, his cousin Gary Rea on electric upright bass, mandolinist Nolan Lawrence, dobroist Chad Graves and banjo player Mark Cassidy performed what amounted to an acoustic set of vocal and instrumental arrangements that straddled creative and predictable.
Guitarist Rea had the task of arranging the remake, which was the concept of late banjo player and South by Southwest Festival co-founder Louis Jay Meyers (1955-2016), who had sought the right bluegrass act to pull it off for more than two decades before giving The HillBenders his blessing.
All five musicians combined for the intricate Tommy vocal harmonies — the element of The Who’s music that often goes vastly under the radar — and those harmonies were only sketchy on the opening “Overture,” during four-part vocals by everyone but Graves. Rea and Lawrence then became the two lead singers, with the guitarist displaying a very Townshend-ish voice beginning with “It’s a Boy” and Lawrence playing the role of Who lead singer Roger Daltrey starting with his higher-pitched answered vocals on “1921.”
Rea then stepped up to explain the essence of the Tommy plot: that a World War I soldier, missing and presumed dead, surprisingly returns to find his wife and son at home with another man. The soldier then murders the man in a jealous rage, and swears Tommy to secrecy by effectively rendering him, as the lyric says, “deaf, dumb and blind.”
The “Amazing Journey/Sparks” medley subsequently became an early highlight. Graves, the only musician playing a cordless instrument, used that freedom to stomp around the stage, further accentuating his raucous solos, and Cassidy’s nimble picking highlighted the medley’s second half. Throughout, Lawrence’s now warmed-up voice achieved operatic tones — perhaps furthered visually by the fact that he resembles operatic tenor icon Luciano Pavarotti.
Lawrence’s incredible lead vocal range also stood out on “The Acid Queen” and, of course, the omnipresent hit “Pinball Wizard,” which became a sing-along. Rea contributed one of his best arrangements to the familiar tune by strumming chords as Cassidy played the melody. The banjoist contributed a telling solo, and harmonized lines with Lawrence’s mandolin after the dramatic stop near the coda — all with the crowd clapping along and audibly singing the choruses.
“You guys are awesome!” a woman yelled afterward.
“Hey, thank you,” replied Cassidy. “I was just about to say you guys were awesome. You knew all the words!”
“Sensation” provided Rea with the last of his lead vocal showcases before Lawrence took over for the finale. The double-time cadence on “I’m Free” provided one of the few surprises in otherwise practically expected bluegrass treatments of the material, as did “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” with its impressive five-part vocal harmonies in the choruses.
On the epic closer “See Me, Feel Me” (which was actually released as a single rather than being included on the original Tommy LP), Lawrence’s voice soared, Graves and Cassidy took turns providing ripping solos, and the crowd clapped along and ate it all up.
The HillBenders had just played Tommy in its near-entirety in one crisp hour, so they decided to add 30 minutes of additional covers and originals from their two preceding CDs, Down To My Last Dollar (2010) and the practically foreshadowing Can You Hear Me? (2012). And while the quintet’s original bluegrass instrumentals and pop-tinged vocal numbers were impressive, it was the covers that got the most traction.
The traditional bluegrass standard “Rollin’ In My Sweet Baby’s Arms” got a warp-speed treatment, and The Beatles’ “Oh Darling” featured an unthinkable, sustained 30-second vocal “oh” in the intro by Lawrence, who then knelt at the front of the stage to magnify the song’s impassioned drama. For its finale, Cassidy sang lead on another classic by The Who, “I Can See for Miles,” as the audience clapped in time, sang along and urged them on.
Together for nine years with the same personnel, The HillBenders may now be at a crossroads. Recording and performing Tommy has undoubtedly broadened the band’s fan base, but the risk is that its own compositions get rendered to the back burner as it becomes an expected interpretive tribute act.
The quintet has always shown its additional rock and pop influences — it had, after all, recorded a preceding bluegrass version of The Romantics’ 1980s hit “Talking in Your Sleep” — but its next recording will be telling. Will the HillBenders attempt to capitalize further by tackling another set of previously recorded material, or stick to its guns as artists by featuring original compositions?
If anything, the quintet’s reading of Tommy is a testament to The Who, a group that pulled off this material with only three instrumentalists (Townshend, Moon, and extraordinary bassist John Entwistle) and harmony singers (Daltrey, Townshend and Entwistle). The album inspired director Ken Russell’s film adaptation in 1975, plus subsequent theatrical versions and tribute tours with replacements for Moon and Entwistle, both deceased.
But if you want 7 minutes and 34 seconds of the original lineup on blissful Tommy material without a safety net, check out the 1995 remastered version of The Who’s already-mammoth 1970 album Live at Leeds. Among the other bonus tracks that turn the single live album into a double, there’s an “Amazing Journey/Sparks” medley that could give eyesight to the blind.