There are moments all throughout rock and roll history that are benchmarks in listeners' lives. There have been several in my life, beginning at an early age up until the time I was old enough to buy my own 45s and LPs at the local department store. There was The Beatles on Ed Sullivan and at the movie theatre for Help! I remember Bob Dylan singing “Blown’ in the Wind” and spinning Peter, Paul and Mary Moving for hours on end. There was riding around with my sister, who was 12 years my senior, with “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” blasting out of the AM radio. And then there was Tommy by The Who.
By 1969, I was ten years old. We had moved from Ft. Wayne, Indiana, to Canton, Ohio, three years prior and my sister transferred from IU to Kent State. The Summer of Love was changing the musical landscape and my sister had moved out ages ago. One day she came home and we sat and listened to this record about a story of a young boy who became deaf, dumb, and blind. Not only was Tommy one of the first albums I purchased, but subsequent versions by The London Symphony Orchestra and the film soundtrack became permanent editions to my record collection. I can’t tell you how many times a group of hooligans went to the movie theatre to see the film version with dilated squinty red eyes.
By the early 1990s when the story went to Broadway, those first few chords from the “Overture” had audiences standing on their feet, offering a thundering ovation before the actors even hit the stage.
So, as my musical taste has changed to having a heavy dose of twang, the HillBenders are hitting the road with Tommy: A Bluegrass Opry. It was Louis Jay Meyers' vision to have the rock opera masterpiece played with banjo, mandolin, and other wood instruments. He spotted this particular band at the IBMC in 2010 and knew he found the right group of boys to make it a reality. As Meyer’s tenure helming the Folk Alliance came to a close in 2014, he finally had time to sell his project to the HillBenders.
Forty-five years after the original release of Tommy, the live analog 2” tape recording sessions at The Studio in the HillBenders' hometown of Springfield, Missouri, began. Arranged and directed by acoustic guitarist Jimmy Rea, the album was released in June by Compass Records, and the band took the show on the road. Lucky for me, a tour stop arrived in Cleveland at Music Box Supper Club.
The HillBenders began the evening with a six-song mini-set including “Spinning in Circles” and a nice cover of “You Don’t Miss Your Water,” to warm up the room. After a quick break, they returned, and once again the opening chords of "Overture” from Chad Graves (dobro), Nolan Lawrence (mandolin), Mark Cassidy (banjo), Gary Rea (upright bass), and Jimmy Rea (acoustic guitar) brought a cosmic energy into the packed dining room. Lawrence beautifully handled most of the vocals with Jimmy Rea offering some relief on a few choice numbers. Graves was an absolute madman, constantly playing out in front of the stage or kneeling down while ferociously strumming and picking. The songs were grouped together in six acts as the band told a synopsis of the story throughout the 75-minute bluegrass interpretation. Everyone in the band had a chance to shine and the entire ensemble delivered some nice harmonies. It was hard to have the fans leave after the closing “See Me, Feel Me/Listening to You,” so in the tradition of The Who, the boys came back out and covered “I Can See For Miles” to close out the evening.
It should go without saying that if the HillBenders come anywhere close to your hometown, you need to experience this live musical take on one of the all-time classic rock albums. For the usual suspects who attend the Americana Music Association's annual festivities, the HillBenders are tentatively scheduled to follow Buddy Miller & Marc Ribot with the final midnight showcase at 3rd & Lindsley on September 17.