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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.”

Goldenvoice's first-ever Desert Trip, from Friday, Oct. 7, through Sunday, Oct. 9, drew tens of thousands of fans from around the world to see Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Neil Young, Sir Paul McCartney, The Who and Roger Waters—and they're doing it all over again this coming weekend.

Independent assistant editor Brian Blueskye and photography contributor Guillermo Prieto ( were fortunate enough to take in the inaugural Desert Trip—also known by some snarkier folks as Oldchella and Agecoach—from the grandstands.

For a recap of day one, click here.

For a recap of day two, click here.

For a recap of the final day, click here.

Here are some images from the grandstands and from around the festival grounds, all by Prieto.

Desert Trip’s inaugural weekend is now in the books—and not even the highly anticipated debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump could keep people away from the final-day performances by The Who and Roger Waters.

Some music critics and fans in recent years have mused that it might be time for The Who to hang it up, since the only remaining original members are frontman Roger Daltrey and songwriting wizard and guitarist Pete Townshend. These musings ignore the fact that The Who includes some great touring members, including Ringo Starr’s son, Zak Starkey, who has sat in the late Keith Moon’s spot on drums since 1996; and bassist Pino Palladino, who took over bass duties after the death of John Entwistle in 2002. Palladino has played with Paul Simon, Joe Walsh and Nine Inch Nails.

Critics have also claimed that Townshend’s hearing issues have caused problems with The Who’s live performances. Well, I can tell you that at Desert Trip, The Who was loud—probably the loudest of the six Desert Trip performers.

The Who kicked off the set with “I Can’t Explain” and “The Seeker.” The band surprisingly threw in “Who Are You” a little early—but that was quite all right, considering how much material the group managed to go through in almost two hours.

Before playing “I Can See for Miles,” Townshend explained it was the band’s first hit. He also said that he felt bad for the people in front of the stage, because they had to look at “two old cunts,” meaning he and Daltrey.

As a big fan of The Who’s 1973 concept album/rock opera, Quadrophenia, I was delighted to hear “5:15” as well as the self-titled instrumental, during which some of the world’s most recent historical moments were shown on the video wall—the Vietnam War, the first Gulf War, Sept. 11 and the Iraq War, to name some of them. This was followed by “Love, Reign O’er Me.”

After a performance of 1982’s “Eminence Front,” The Who then made light of their “other” concept album/rock opera, Tommy. They started off a four-song showcase with “Amazing Journey” and followed with “Acid Queen,” “Pinball Wizard” and “See Me, Feel Me.” The group ended with “Baba O’Riley and “Won’t Get Fooled Again.”

Yes, The Who is not the same band it once was. Roger Daltrey’s voice has understandably began to wear with age, a fact which was very evident during “Love, Reign O’er Me.” That’s not to say his voice has lost all its power. Indeed, The Who put on a powerful performance and was a huge hit with the Desert Trip crowd.

If there’s a relative outlier on the Desert Trip bill, it’s Roger Waters. Pink Floyd started as an intense psychedelic rock band before frontman Syd Barrett did too much LSD and suffered a severe mental breakdown. Yes, Pink Floyd was intense and far out; the band’s early material is influential to many punk bands.

Waters left Pink Floyd in the mid ’80s after The Wall became an epic hit, but he’s remained an influential musician and has carried on Pink Floyd’s legacy. Rumors ran rampant about the performance, and one of them came true—the sound system was amazing.

Waters took the stage after a dark ambient instrumental played for about 20 minutes with the video screen depicting rocky surface, perhaps on the moon. Nearly three amazing hours would follow.

Waters started off “Breathe” from Dark Side of the Moon, and followed with “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun,” a fine example of Pink Floyd’s heavy psychedelia.

The visuals on “Time,” “Us and Them” and “Shine on You Crazy Diamond” were great, but it was topped by the stunning visuals—typical Pink Floyd artwork of the ’70s style animation that’s a cross between Salvador Dali and the movie Fantastic Planet—during “Welcome to the Machine.”

After “Have a Cigar,” Waters began to play “Wish You Were Here,” and that’s when things got ... well, interesting.

The end of the song was interrupted by the sounds of a helicopter and sirens—which blared in surround sound throughout the grounds. Suddenly, a building resembling the one on the cover of Animals appeared across the video wall on the stage, and four large smoke stacks came out of the top of the stage—complete with steam. Waters continued with “Pigs on the Wing, Pt. 1.”

References to Donald Trump began flashing on the screen. An image of Trump with the word “Charade” underneath. An animation of Donald Trump throwing up. A really disturbing picture of Donald Trump in female form, complete with breasts. Finally, during “Another Brick in the Wall Part 2,” an inflatable pig made its way around the grandstands and floor that had “Divided we fall,” “Donald Trump is an arrogant, racist, lying, sexist pig” and “Fuck Trump’s wall!” painted on the side.

Songs including “Mother,” “Run Like Hell” and “Brain Damage/Eclipse” followed.

Waters didn’t really do an encore, and instead talked to the audience about his efforts to boycott Israel and end what he believes is apartheid against the Palestinians. He then proceeded to play “Bring the Boys Back Home” and closed out his set with “Comfortably Numb.” Surprisingly, many members of the Desert Trip audience, many of whom have money and presumably disagree with some of Waters’ political positions, gave him a warm reception.

I have never seen a stage production at the level of Waters’ show at Desert Trip. Actually, I don’t think anybody has ever seen a stage production at the level of Waters’ show at Desert Trip. Somehow, he managed to top everything Paul McCartney and the Rolling Stones had to offer. It was an incredible end to the weekend and the festival.

Published in Reviews