(August 1, 2015; OLD ROCK HOUSE, Saint Louis MO)
What a weird and amazing weekend this was! Friday night saw me at Pop’s for the crushing metal frenzy of Coal Chamber, Fear Factory and others; Saturday was my introduction to a venue (Old Rock House) and a bluegrass band (the Hillbenders), both of which more than lived up to their hype. With former Mississippi Nights (a moment of silence, please) booker and manager Tim Weber at the helm of the House, I knew that the sound and the experience would be exceptional. Granted, there is a different feel, a different ambiance in the House compared to the grittier vibe of the Nights, but that could just be because of the wine-sipping crowd of aging hipsters (I may be aging but, I’ve never been accused of being a hipster). Once the music started, however, the place came alive… not as raucous as one of those nights on the Landing, but fun, nonetheless.
The five-piece Hillbenders, hailing from Springfield MO, are not bluegrass traditionalists, though they do doff their collective caps in acknowledgment to the heroes and legends of the past; the band also has their feet firmly planted in their own rock and roll roots. By using “traditional” bluegrass instrumentation, vocal harmonies and arrangements, the Hillbenders (mandolin player Nolan Lawrence, banjo player Mark Cassidy, guitarist Jim Rea, his cousin, bassist Gary Rea, and dobro player Chad “Gravyboat” Graves… the only thing missing is a fiddle) are creating a niche genre that bluegrass, rock, even country purists can all enjoy, finding common ground in an otherwise contentious musical climate.
The Old Rock House show, advertised as “an evening with the Hillbenders,” promoting their new album – a reworking of the Who’s classic rock opera, TOMMY, subtitled “A BLUEGRASS OPRY” here – began with a nearly hour-long set of originals spiced with several well-chosen traditional and unconventional covers, effectively meaning that the band acted as their own opening act. With Lawrence taking the majority of the lead vocals (though Jim also took his fair share of leads), the group tore through the catchy “Radio” and the Swiftian (as in Taylor… forgive me for evoking such a name, oh vengeful gods of music) “Done Wrong Love Song,” as well as such other originals as the Gothic murder tune “Red Stains” and the dreamy “Spinning In Circles,” as everyone joined in on harmony. While each musician took leads or solos, it was the histrionics and majestic facial foliage of Graves and the brilliant banjo playing (and good looks) of Cassidy that became focal points, particularly with their fiery interaction on a wicked cover of the Romantics’ “Talking In Your Sleep.” Other notable covers included a faithful “Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arms,” the Flatt and Scruggs classic from 1951, and a hauntingly beautiful take on the Beatles’ “Oh! Darling.” Though the dance floor remained – for the most part – incomprehensibly empty, there were a few couples tripping the light fantastic, one gentleman who was merely tripping (take that as you will) and one unafraid, totally adorable little girl (maybe four or five years old) who took to the floor, melting the hearts of everyone around her.
A ten minute break turned into close to a half hour wait before the band, rested and sporting fresh duds, took the stage for TOMMY. I had yet to hear the new record, so I wasn’t exactly sure how this one was gonna shake out. However, from the first notes of the opening “Overture,” I was completely sold on this concept. Not because of any kind of kitsch or PICKIN’ ON… approach to what is, arguably, Pete Townshend’s first great work but, rather, because the Hillbenders are very serious about this project, which serves not only as tribute or homage, but as a superb re-imagining, as well. Again, Nolan, as “narrator,” handled the majority of lead vocals, though – with a number of songs that were specifically written in the voices of several of the story’s characters – there were opportunities for all five ‘Benders to take a lead or two. While the group played the original TOMMY album in its entirety, the holes in Townshend’s plot demanded a bit of clarification; Jim Rea filled in those dark areas with spoken expositions, moving the story along nicely. Likewise, Rea’s acoustic guitar gave a note of authenticity, as much of the Who’s original featured layers of acoustic rhythm and lead guitar, with either John Entwistle’s bass or the occasional electric guitar solo offering depth and power to the music. Nolan’s nimble mandolin work managed to weave its way into and through the arrangements, playing parts that were originally written for guitar or piano, even punctuating certain parts with a percussive flair. As with the earlier set, most of the heavy lifting was done by Mark and Chad, with Gary carrying Entwistle’s beefy bass lines throughout on his upright (an estimable feat, to be sure).
Like the original 1969 offering from the Who, the Hillbenders’ live version of TOMMY was ripe with highlights, including the trippy “Amazing Journey,” and forceful instrumental, Sparks,” one of the best one-two punches in rock and roll history. “Sparks,” in particular, allowed each of the musicians to flex their solo muscles. “Eyesight To the Blind,” by the second Blues legend to use the name Sonny By Williamson, fit in nicely and worked as a powerful introduction to the seductress/prostitute/dealer “Acid Queen” later in the narrative. John Entwistle’s two songwriting contributions introduced us to Tommy’s mischievous “Cousin Kevin” and, in “Fiddle About,” his wicked Uncle Ernie, both performed with a sort of sick glee. Of course, the one song that just about everybody knows – even those who don’t like rock music or the Who – is “Pinball Wizard,” with its refrain of “That deaf, dumb and blind boy/Sure plays a mean pinball.” The acoustic lead guitar and the two-note bass punctuations made it an adventurous commodity for a group like the ‘Benders but, like everything else, they made it their own and breathed new life into a classic.
As the lead character moved into self-realization and became a messiah to the masses of disenfranchised youth, the music started to take on a brighter feel, beginning with the wistful, wishful “Tommy Can You Here Me,” with its haunting harmony vocals provided by all five Hillbenders. The narcissistically upbeat “Sensation” eventually led to the celebratory tune “I’m Free,” visiting the home of “Sally Simpson” as she sneaks out to get a glimpse of her idol. As Sally attempts to touch Tommy, she is brutally asked to leave the stage by a pushy police officer, hitting her cheek on a chair; naturally, as she received sixteen stitches to close the wound, her father made sure she understood that that’s what happens when you disobey your parents. Keith Moon’s “Tommy’s Holiday Camp” was as loopy and loony as the mad drummer himself, with Cassidy, Graves and Jim Rea, in particular, furiously bending strings to approximate the whirling, kaleidoscopic frenzy of the original. Tommy’s followers have wised up, shouting “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” with the sudden realization that his family and corporate handlers had used them for dupes, leading to their former messiah seeking their guidance.
There have been plenty of versions of TOMMY – most headed up, in some fashion, by the Who – but, this performance by the Hillbenders may be most honest, unaffected take I’ve heard since the original. The group doesn’t play it at every show on their current tour and if you are lucky enough to be in a town where they are playing it, you owe it to yourself to be there. Before the show, I joked that it would be cool if the Hillbenders would do an encore of Who tunes, like “Substitute,” “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and “I’m a Boy.” We didn’t exactly get that but, we did get a suitably creepy version of “I Can See For Miles,” with Mark Cassidy taking the lead vocals. Mark’s monotone delivery and piercing stare struck just the right chord for the tune and was a great way to end one of the best nights of music that I’ve ever had the privilege to attend.