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Music Review: The Hillbenders' 'Tommy: A Bluegrass Opera'

Courtesy the Hillbenders
The Hillbenders (from left): Jim Rea, Nolan Lawrence, Mark Cassidy, Gary Rea, Chad Graves.

The HillBenders
'Tommy: A Bluegrass Opera

The HillBenders’ bluegrass version of "Tommy" has no real precedent. Other acts have done new versions of classic albums; the Flaming Lips’ recording of "Dark Side of the Moon" springs to mind. But the Hillbenders, an acoustic five-piece from Springfield, Missouri, aren’t attempting to reinvent the Who’s classic album in the way the Lips did Pink Floyd’s classic.

The HillBenders are attempting to recreate "Tommy." The nearest comparison I can come up with is director Gus Van Zant’s version of "Pyscho," filmed shot-for-Hitchcock-shot but with different actors. The HillBenders have made a "Tommy" right in the line with the Who’s original — but with strictly bluegrass instruments.

And even that comparison’s off. Van Zant’s "Psycho" must have been a rewarding artistic puzzle for the filmmakers but was of little interest to viewers, who mainly just wondered: “Why?” Thankfully, the HillBenders’ "Tommy" is much more than an exercise in musical problem solving.

What it is, in fact, is a blast. All credit to Pete Townsend and company for getting there first, of course, but seriously: Nearly four decades beyond this rock opera’s debut, the only "Tommy" I will ever look forward to hearing again is the HillBenders’.

Why? Townsend’s rock opera was a defining document in the transformation of “rock ‘n’ roll” into “rock,” and it remains emblematic of the expanded artistic possibilities that attended that shift — and the ever-present accompanying danger of pretentiousness.

The HillBenders’ bluegrass approach allows the band to embrace the former while setting "Tommy" free from the latter.

Rearrange the electric opera for banjo, mandolin and acoustic six-string, bass and resonator guitars, and it turns out that all grandiosity simply melts away.

Unplug the music scoring "Tommy"’s creepy encounters with his sadist Cousin Kevin and his pederast Uncle Ernie, and the campiness of the original disappears while the creepiness intensifies.

The tender young lover’s hope for a good year to come, “1921,” is now tenderer than ever, for similar reasons. The difference is all bluegrass. HillBender vocalists Nolan Lawrence and Jim Rea may deliver their lines exactingly, like "Tommy" impersonators, throughout. In fact, the unmistakable similarity of their harmonies to Daltry and Townsend’s is what prompted producer Louis Meyers to approach the group with the idea in the first place. But the bluegrass setting lets those high harmonies fly back down to earth.

Which isn’t to pretend "Tommy" can be entirely salvaged. Townsend’s tale of a “deaf, dumb and blind kid” who becomes a spiritual guru is as silly and narratively incoherent as it ever was — and as ultimately beside the point, musically speaking. The opera’s longstanding standout moments remain the standouts here.

That means “Pinball Wizard,” “I’m Free,” and “We’re Not Going to Take It/See Me Feel Me,” most of all. Good songs with hooks do tend to win out, all else being equal. The instrumental passage “Sparks,” meanwhile, is a revelation, a model to neophytes of the chops that bluegrass demands, particularly the genre’s gift of drum-less yet driving rhythm. The whole album does this.

Such potential to spread the bluegrass gospel, particularly to those who’d likely be uninterested if the Who weren’t involved, is another of the album’s achievements. But it sets a potential novelty trap for the band, too.

What’s next? A bluegrass rendition of Pink Floyd’s "The Wall"? A twangy cover of “Who Are You?” to theme a new TV drama, "CSI: Ozarks"? Perhaps the best follow up for the HillBenders would be to return to the contemporary bluegrass they’ve already mastered on two earlier albums, 2010’s "Down to My Last Dollar" and 2012’s "Can You Hear Me?," except now with one key difference. This time they’ll have a whole bunch of new fans along for the ride.

David Cantwell is the author of Merle Haggard: The Running Kind, the co-author of Heartaches by the Number: Country Music’s 500 Greatest Singles, and a contributor to Newyorker.com.

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