By Dale King
The rock opera Tommy, guitarist Pete Townshend’s high-powered musical about a “deaf, dumb and blind kid” who becomes a “pinball wizard” despite his sensory and other personal obstacles, stops by the Duncan Theatre on the Lake Worth campus of Palm Beach State College at 8 p.m. Wednesday.
The show will be performed in its 75-minute entirety, but in a completely new fashion – as a bluegrass opry tribute featuring the five-man musical group, the Hillbenders.
This performance will forgo the extreme dance numbers, pounding backbeat and occasional pyrotechnics that often accompany the original.
“There are many versions of this show,” said Jim Rea, guitarist and arranger for the Hillbenders, a 9-year-old bluegrass group that developed, morphed and grew in the Springfield, Mo., area. “We do engage in some movement, but we are not actors or dancers.”
He said their performance, like the original, tells the story of a boy named Tommy, who is struck blind, deaf and mute by an early life trauma. The show focuses on his experiences with life, the relationship with his family and his outcome as a pinball champ and rock star.
The production was conceived and produced by South by Southwest (SXSW) Music Festival co-founder and longtime musician/producer Louis Jay Meyers. Rea said Meyers, who died in March 2016 on the first day of the SXSW festival, held each March in Austin, Texas, had been mulling over the idea of taking Tommy on the bluegrass road for 20 to 25 years.
“He had been looking for the right band to pull off this high-wire bluegrass approach,” Rea noted. “And he found the HillBenders were the right band.”
In a press release advertising the performance, mandolin player Nolan Lawrence said the Hillbenders have been able to successfully bridge the gap between the mainstream consumer and bluegrass aficionados. “We wanted to pair bluegrass with the other music we grew up with: rock ’n’ roll,” Lawrence said in a prepared statement.
The Hillbenders recently recorded their bluegrass Tommy for SiriusXM radio which plans to broadcast it this summer. Other members of the band include Chad “Gravy Boat” Graves on dobro, Mark Cassidy on banjo and Gary Rea on bass.
Tommy was originally released as an album by The Who in May 1969, and has become a classic of rock, spawning a film, numerous cover versions as well as Jim Rea’s remake for the Hillbenders, which they performed at SXSW in 2015. [Here’s their version of “Pinball Wizard.”]
Wednesday’s show at PBSC is part of a tour that will take the band through Florida to Utah, Colorado, California, Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota and back to the Southeast by May.
The Hillbenders will present The Who’s Tommy: A Bluegrass Opry Wednesday at 8 p.m. in the Duncan Theatre on the campus of Palm Beach State College in Lake Worth. Tickets are all $30 and may be purchased in person, by calling the box office at (561) 868-3309 or by going online at www.duncantheatre.org. Parking is free at the college.