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The HillBenders play the Who's "Tommy," bluegrass style
The Who's rock opera "Tommy" has been a film, a classical piece and a Tony Award-winning stage production. But it's safe to say the idea of a bluegrass version wasn't exactly top of mind on either side of the genre divide.
So when Louis Jay Meyers, the late Folk Alliance chief, suggested the idea to Missouri's HillBenders, a couple of years ago, they didn't quite know what to say.
"I was taken aback," singer-mandolinist Nolan Lawrence recalls by phone. "I like that record, but I never would have thought of it like that. I didn't know what to think of it at first." It turned out that HillBenders guitarist Jim Rea "is a fanatical 'Tommy' fan," according to Lawrence, and was "kinda freaked-out at the thought of the idea of us doing that. Everyone else instantly caught on; his excitement was infectious."
The quintet and Meyers spent months woodshedding the piece, sending arrangement ideas back and forth and figuring out how to deploy the group's instrumentation -- and also how to compensate for the lack of key ingredients, such as John Entwistle's French horn and particularly Keith Moon's drumming.
"We've taken to calling Gravyboat (Chad Graves) the Keith Moon of the dobro," Lawrence says. "He's got so much percussion on there, in and around the record. That was the biggest challenge, making sure we had some of the rhythmic sensibility and the intensity of the drums and what they bring to the record.
"The other biggest challenge," Lawrence adds, "was making sure there was enough bluegrass in there to really call it bluegrass. The Instrumentation is what really lends itself to that, but we had to be conscious of making sure it's still a bluegrass record, even though it's very much an acoustic rock record."
The HillBenders debuted "Tommy" at the Folk Alliance convention during February of 2015 and also played the following month in Dallas and at the South By Southwest conference in Austin, Texas, all to rave reviews. The Who's Pete Townshend gave it a thumbs-up and visited with the band after its May 2015 performance in Nashville. And Lawrence, 38, is happy that the project put his band on the map outside of the bluegrass and roots music worlds where it's already known as a kind of iconoclastic concern.
"It's something interesting and different and shocking in some ways, and I think that kind of defines as us a band," he explains. "It was definitely a weird project to undertake, and now that we're playing it and getting some attention for it, it's growing on us so much.
"There's a sense of it as something more than a schtick and a shocker. It's really grown on all of us and becoming something special that we really cherish. I think the years to come with it are going to be pretty special."
The HillBenders present The Who's Tommy: A Bluegrass Opry
8 p.m. Saturday, July 9.
the Ark, 316 S. Main St., Ann Arbor.
Tickets are $20.
Call 734-761-1818 or visit theark.org.
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