Bluegrass Version of ‘Tommy’ at Grunin Center of Friday

The HillBenders Have Garnered Absolutely Rave Reviews
Apr 10, 2018

The HillBenders, a Missouri-based bluegrass band, will be performing The Who’s “Tommy” at Ocean County College’s Grunin Center this Friday, April 13, starting at 8 p.m. Tickets are $35. They may be purchased online at grunincenter.org or at the door, which opens up at 7:30.

A bluegrass version of “Tommy”? Say what!

“Tommy” was a groundbreaking double album when it was released in 1969. The Who took the idea of rock concept albums, so popular in the second half of the 1960s – The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper,” The Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds,” The Mothers of Invention’s “Freak Out!” – to a new level with “Tommy,” piecing together not only songs with complementary musical styles and themes, but also a story line, making it a “rock opera.”

“Tommy” was great rock. But was it great opera? The very idea led to a number of reincarnations such as a 1972 album by the London Symphony Orchestra, a 1975 film and a 1993 Broadway show. I found the movie a mess and the musical’s book pathetic. But I must admit my views were usually in the minority.

The HillBenders joined the mix in 2015 with their album Tommy: A Bluegrass Opry. Conceived and produced by South by Southwest co-founder and musician Louis Jay Meyers, it has earned rave reviews.

“On paper,” opined Rolling Stone, “it sounds like the ‘Pickin’ On’ album from hell: the Who’s classic 1969 rock opera, but all-acoustic and played on bluegrass instrumentation. And yet this Appalachian take on ‘Tommy’ – played on banjo, guitar, mandolin, doghouse bass and Dobro with nary a kickdrum or electric guitar in sight – is as awesome as it is audacious, a fully satisfying interpretation that walks a just-right line between homage and reinvention. Keith Moon’s thunderous drums were such a key part of the original’s percussive atmosphere that you wouldn’t think a drum-free version would work, but the seamless arrangements deftly imply all the tempo flourishes you remember. Clipped strums substitute nicely for drumbeats, and Pete Townshend’s steady rolling guitar transposes perfectly to banjo. Best of all, mandolist/frontman Nolan Lawrence pulls off Roger Daltry-style bellowing with operatic, lusty aplomb.”

“It’s tempting to say that audiences in 2015 will probably prefer the HillBenders’ version over The Who’s original,” wrote a New York Music Daily reviewer. “Forget for a minute that these days, bluegrass is a whole lot more popular than bombastic stadium rock. For starters, this bluegrass band had virtuoso chops and impeccable taste. …  the HillBenders’ version is arguably even more epic. … That probably explains why Townshend has given his blessing to the album … the original seems pretty lightweight.”

Whoa! As a huge fan of The Who I could be offended by that last comment. On the other hand, I am a decades-long bluegrass fan as well. I’d say Friday’s performance at the Grunin Center is a must see – for better or for worse.

Rick Mellerup

rickmellerup@thesandpaper.net

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