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01 May 2017

Stagecoach 2017: The HillBenders' Bluegrass Version of 'Tommy' Is Who-Approved

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The HillBenders perform Tommy at Stagecoach. The HillBenders perform Tommy at Stagecoach. Cory Courtney

The Who played Desert Trip at the Empire Polo Club back in the fall—and selections from the band’s rock opera Tommy were some of the most popular songs.

At Stagecoach, much of Tommy was once again played at the Empire Polo Club—albeit in a much different fashion.

The HillBenders on Sunday played a bluegrass version of the album in its entirety—minus four or so songs, given the group had to trim things down to fit into an hour-long set. It’s worth noting that the band pressed on sans bassist Gary Rea, due to flooding in the Ozarks.

After the performance, frontman Jimmy Rea discussed where the idea came from to record the entire Tommy album.

“It was actually a friend of ours’ suggestion,” Jimmy Rea said. “He had been wanting to do it for 25 years and was messing around with it. His name was Louis Meyers, and he was a banjo player. He was one of the guys who started South by Southwest and Folk Alliance. He was winding down, getting ready to turn 60 years old, and quitting his spot as director of Folk Alliance. He said that he had been wanting to do this for a long time and thought of us because we were enough rock ’n’ roll and bluegrass. I said, ‘Well, I love the record.’ The other guys didn't know the record too well; we recorded the demo and sent it to him. He said, ‘Let’s do it!’ It was a simple twist of fate.”

Jimmy Rea explained his love for the original album.

“It’s the music, not the story so much,” he said. “I think Pete Townshend was in a spot, and The Who was in a magical spot at the time. Pete was young enough; it was the right time, and it just caught on. He was furiously prolific and still is. He writes so many fucking songs.”

We talked about how the original was apparently inspired by Meher Baba, a guru from India who put a focus on silence and living a clean lifestyle.

“I remember reading Pete Townshend’s autobiography, and he mentioned him. It’s kind of an escape from the life of being a rock star,” Jimmy Rea said. “There were a lot of disciplinary things in Meher Baba’s world and in his teachings about eating and speaking and abstaining from drugs. I think it was something (Townshend) turned to that gave him stability in a crazy world.”

When it came time to record the HillBenders’ version of Tommy, the band turned back the clock, technology-wise.

“Many of the songs were easy, but there were a few problem children that I had to flip the rhythm, grass it up or keep it authentic to the album feel,” Rea said. “For the most part, it kind of flowed. We didn’t want it to be too bluegrass, but to have the album’s original feel. When we recorded it, we went to 2-inch tape. That was a big priority for Louis—to make sure we recorded it on tape. … It was a different experience for us. When that analog tape is rolling, whatever you get is what you get. There isn’t any clipping, posting or dragging. You have to get it right the first time.”

Rea said the reaction to the HillBenders’ Tommy has been largely positive.

“If people are familiar with the record, it really helps,” he said. “If people are traditionalists with bluegrass, it’s probably harder for them to grasp. It depends on how die-hard they are. For the most part, you don’t hear the negative criticism too often, but we have gotten a lot of good feedback from old fans of The Who who have matured and have listened to Americana, folk and bluegrass—old couples who have their kids with them and their kids who grew up on the record being played in the house. I was really surprised today by how many people were singing along.”

He added that the Stagecoach crowd was the Hillbenders’ ideal audience.

“Playing a festival crowd is much cooler,” he said. “The energy is there versus a theater setting where people are just sitting and listening.”

Rea said he was not aware that Kiefer Sutherland—yes, that Kiefer Sutherland—was playing in the Palomino Tent next door at the same time.

“I didn’t know that, but I love The Lost Boys!” he said. “I was really happy with the crowd, even though we didn’t have our bass player. But I was proud of the crowd, because I heard that two or three years ago, Del McCoury was here, and there were only three people watching. I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t know what bluegrass meant around here. It looked like people were really digging it, though. It wasn’t blaring down sun, either, like some of the festivals we play; it was nice to be covered, at least.”

I had to ask: Will the HillBenders record The Who’s second rock opera, Quadrophenia?

“We get asked that a lot, but I don’t think so,” Rea said, “unless Pete Townshend himself wanted us to do it, and then we might do it. We’re trying to think of what’s next on the agenda on our own vibe. We have a lot of new material, so we’d like to get it recorded.”

I also had to ask: What do the members of The Who think of the album?

“Louis Meyers, who actually passed away last March at 60 years old, was really wanting Townshend to hear the record and get some feedback,” Rea said. “He reached out to people over the years, and one guy who used to manage Pete Townshend still had his contacts, and Pete wrote the guy back saying he loved it. He’d already heard it through the Internet. … He invited us to The Who’s show in Nashville. We watched the show, were invited backstage, and got a vote of confidence from Pete. I was really surprised he took the time.

“A few months later, we got to meet Roger (Daltrey), who was at a teen cancer charity; Roger came to do a speech. We played Tommy at the pre-party. At the actual ceremony, we did one song for Roger and The Who’s manager, and had everyone on their feet singing and clapping along. We got a picture and got to meet Roger. Both were super gracious and very friendly.”

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