Band gives a bluegrass opera touch to a classic rock album


By Matt Wickstrom

The HillBenders made a stop in Lexington Wednesday night, bringing their “Tommy” bluegrass opera to the cozy confines of Cosmic Charlie’s.

“Tommy” is a reimagination of legendary guitarist Pete Townshend’s rock opera “Tommy” through a bluegrass lens. The opera is based off of The Who’s 1969 double-sided album of the same name.

The HillBenders formed in 2008, and have held the same lineup in the seven years since their inception. The group features Nolan Lawrence on mandolin, Gary Rea on bass, Jimmy Rea on guitar, Mark Cassidy on banjo and Chad Graves on dobro. Wednesday’s stop in Lexington was the group’s first since a visit to the Lyric Theatre in May for WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour.

Louis Jay Meyers, co-founder of South by Southwest (SXSW) music festival and longtime musician and producer, approached the band with the idea of covering “Tommy”. According to Lawrence, Meyers said he’d long had the idea to do a bluegrass interpretation of “Tommy”, but could never find the right band for the job, until coming across The HillBenders.

“We recorded a couple demo tunes and it worked and sounded great, so we just jumped in head first and went for it, and it’s been a wild ride ever since,” Lawrence said.

The HillBenders did most of their recording for “Tommy” analog rather than digitally, because it allows for them to translate their energetic live sound to the record, which oftentimes bands struggle to match.

“We recorded almost everything as if we were playing it on stage, whereas with most of our other recordings we record and lay down two or three instruments at a time, and then a couple more after that,” Lawrence said.

After completing studio work on “Tommy,” the quintet from Missouri began receiving immediate praise from their fans, the media and fellow musicians. The album debuted at number three on Billboard’s bluegrass chart immediately following its release, and was featured in High Notes magazine over the summer. The record also attracted the attention of Townshend, the original author of “Tommy” over 40 years ago.

“He (Townshend) heard about the buzz the record was generating before it was even released, and decided to invite us to The Who’s show in Nashville,” Lawrence said. “At the show we got to go backstage and hang out and chat with the band, which was the experience of a lifetime.”

The success of The HillBender’s “Tommy” has the band building momentum towards an action-packed, successful 2016. The band has plans to continue their “Tommy” tour after the holidays, travelling throughout the U.S. and making their first trips to Australia and the United Kingdom to perform.

The band was also recently announced in the first wave of artists confirmed for the 2016 John Hartford Memorial Festival, held in Bean Blossom, Indiana. The festival, being held June 2 to June 4, will also feature performances from Sam Bush, Leftover Salmon, The Travelin McCourys and many more.

Some music fanatics are familiar with the lyrics “Ever since I was a young boy, I played the silver ball,” by Townshend. Now thanks to The HillBenders, music lovers have another way to remember him; WHO-grass style.

Get a small taste of The Hillbender’s “Tommy” below with the classic “Pinball Wizard.”

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