In 1969, the rock music world was agog when The Who, one of the top grossing acts on the circuit at that time, released a double album called Tommy. Described as a rock opera, the entire album was based on a single concept, the story of a young boy who was deaf, dumb and blind, yet was the best there was at playing pinball.
This was way before anything like a video game existed, and pinball machines were found mostly in bars and pubs – not anyplace where young boys were encouraged to spend their time. There was something of a dark underbelly to the piece, but it was still tame by today’s pop/rock/rap standards.
A film was made of the story in 1975, using the songs from the album which were mostly written by Who guitarist Pete Townsend, and starring their lead singer Roger Daltry along with a who’s who of rock and pop icons. And, of course, an album with the soundtrack was released as well. It has also been staged in the theater and on Broadway with various degrees of success
And now in 2015, The Hillbenders are doing their own tribute, arranging a full bluegrass reimagining of Tommy for release this Spring. The idea originated with Louis Meyers, one of the founders of the massive SXSW music and arts festival in Austin, TX. He had been spinning the concept of grassy remake for quite some time, and when approached the band about working with him on the project, they leapt at the chance.
We had a chance to discuss all this with ‘Benders guitarist/vocalist Jim Rea who said that their version will be an acoustic/grass replication of the Who album, which they will also perform on the road this year in toto.
“We do the album front to back with the exception of the humorously name Underture which is basically an percussion heavy interpretation of the song Sparks. The Underture features 10 minutes of the legendary Keith Moon doing his crazy thing on the drums, timpani, shaker, tambourine, etc. In lieu of faking through a bunch of drum kit driven motives in a bluegrass band, we extended Sparks to let Chad ‘Gravy Boat’ Graves flex on the slide. We refer to him as the Keith Moon of the dobro. His flashy and aggressive style is contagious on stage just as it was with Keith. It’s a wonder his resonator guitar isn’t left in a pile of splintered wood and wires by the end of a show.
All the songs are in their original order on the new record, and that was the whole idea of this project from the start, to present this legendary work of art as a whole. The album will be exactly what you hear live with the exception of a few ‘jam’ opportunities I arranged into the live show for entertainment purposes. Those ‘jamable’ sections were just too good not to let our soloists embellish upon in a bluegrass format, and they also help us stay on our toes during the live show.”
A performance video of Pinball Wizard, one of three songs to chart from Tommy in ’69-70, has been released, demonstrating just how well they have blended rock and bluegrass sensibilities.
Rea said that he and the band are thrilled at the prospect of reworking such a classic work.
“We immediately wanted to work with Louis because of his ability to visualize and materialize. Of course, we were not alive when the record first was released in 1969, but I remember that my initial theater experience was Tommy with my mother and best friend around the age of 13. It was also one of my very first CD purchases after cassettes started phasing out. Like much of the early Rock-n-Roll, it’s just a timeless sound. But the complexity of this piece always personally spoke to me, so I jumped at the idea of being arranger and touring with it.
Only a couple songs gave me trouble in the arranging stage. I basically had to decide if I wanted to flip the song to grass or keep it closer to the original version. I think Louis ‘knew from the start deep down in his heart’ that this record would be perfect for this genre.”
No doubt there will be doubters, if not outrage, over this cross-genre exploration. One can imagine both Who fans and bluegrass lovers being aghast at such a thing, but let’s hope they are in the minority. We’ve seen previous bluegrass takes on rock classics score with audiences of every type, and if it helps people to view our music with fresh ears, more’s the good!
Jim says that he and the guys aren’t worried about backlash – they just want to do what they do.
“I personally was the biggest fan of Tommy, but it’s not hard for any of us to like the Who or classic rock, I mean, it’s classic for a reason. We are a melting pot of a group. Our sound and influences span from Americana to Zydeco without shame. If you have seen the HillBenders live on stage or when you do, it’s very apparent that we are basically a rock band on bluegrass instruments. We certainly won’t be quietly tucked into a bluegrass corner. Make no mistake, we intend to bring this music to new audiences and demographics at any risk necessary and we think this project and our original music can do that.
We don’t lose members constantly for the next best thing, or name the band after one front man who calls the shots. We’ve had the same 5 guys for almost 7 years. We are a family band that aren’t related, expect by the the music and the feeling it creates.”
A web site for the new album, entitled Tommy – A Bluegrass Opry, has audio for the Overture available for listening, and promises more previews between now and the release. The live performance will debut during the Folk Alliance convention in Kansas City on February 20.
The original Tommy is certified double platinum in the US. Let’s hope The Hillbenders do even a fraction of that with theirs.