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The Hillbenders



The more you see your rock heroes pass away or visibly age, the more nervous you get that an advertised performance might be the last chance you’ll get to see them. Hence, when I was “on the fence” initially about catching the Who’s May 23rd performance at Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre, a friend’s willingness to facilitate everything made all the difference. And I’m glad, because this was one hell of a concert. Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey could have stopped years ago… it’s likely that their most towering musical achievements are behind them. But man, those two have still got it. And I love being reminded of past rock glories. Nothing wrong with nostalgia at all… that’s why we keep going back to enjoy the legends proving yet again why they deserve to be in that category.

THE WHO (Pete Townshend) (photo credit: LS)

I’ll say upfront that TOMMY was a significant album in my life. Musically it is brilliant; conceptually, it was at the very least bold and adventurous. The “Overture,” which the band opened with, is one of my favorite pieces of music ever. Truly. With the full orchestra in tow (The Who have planned this tour to include local orchestras joining them along the way) and a rather dazzling lighting backdrop, the audience was immediately treated to sheer spectacle. A suite of TOMMY tunes, including the expected “Pinball Wizard,” fab as always, and the timeless brilliance of “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” roused the crowd plenty, but affected yours truly on a very emotional level. I won’t pretend that this wasn’t nostalgia of the deepest kind for me. I could tell you all the personal associations this music holds for me and how it transcends what rock tends to be on every single level, but then this would cease to be a review and instead turn into my diary. I’ll be disciplined here and just say… I loved it. And the orchestra added grandeur and layers of sonic dressing to Pete’s extraordinary compositions.

THE WHO (Roger Daltrey) (photo credit: LS)

I would have likely been okay if the band wanted to do the entire album, but they didn’t. Instead, “Who Are You” was next, a catchy but overly familiar song from their catalog. It’s one of those insidious tunes that you can’t escape with this band. Nothing wrong with it, and Roger Daltrey sings the crap out of it (Rog was in good voice tonight, by the way). But to assess where it stands in the scheme of things, try making a song out of your own name, to be cute. Or, try NOT to think of the theme song for a really, really successful TV crime show. Can’t do it, can you? Well who the hell are YOU? “Eminence Front” is a reasonably catchy later-period Who tune, which the crowd enjoyed. Familiarity tends to breed affection, especially with one of the greatest classic rock bands of all time. “Imagine a Man,” from the 1975 album THE WHO BY NUMBERS was pleasant and melodic and Pete seemed to be having a great time performing it. In fact, it’s worth mentioning that Pete and Roger both seemed to be in great spirits. Both addressed the audience repeatedly, commenting on the “nice people” of Saint Louis, our great rivers, and of course, the exciting status of a certain hockey team. More on that shortly. But a nice surprise for me personally was the song “Join Together.” It’s a quirky mid-period Who tune that I liked so much as a youngster, I bought the single. I would never have imagined they would perform that one; it was NOT a huge hit. But by god, here it was, complete with Jew’s harp and pure weirdness. Happy music fan! Two classic older tunes, “Substitute” and “The Seeker” came next, with Daltrey complimenting Townshend’s writing and stating how a certain lyric was one of the best lines Pete ever wrote, that being “I was born with a plastic spoon in my mouth.” The crowd listened attentively whenever Daltrey or Townshend addressed them, and this was truly a fun part of the show. Again, their upbeat moods were palpable. These guys know how much they need each other, and every time Daltrey sidled up to Pete and put his arms around him, you had to get a deep thrill. The “bloody Who” have been at it since the early ‘60s, my friends. You have to respect their longevity! A pair of classics from WHO’S NEXT were served up: “Behind Blue Eyes” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” the latter performed in an intimate acoustic style that made for one of the evening’s most tasteful choices. It’s a legendary song with heaps of gravitas, I just would have preferred a bit more intensity on the utterly classic closing line ”Meet the new boss/Same as the old boss,” which has been quoted so much in the years since its inception. You could hardly hear Daltrey sing the lines in this arrangement. But no matter; it was still a delight. Pete addressed the audience after that by apologizing, sort of, for ENDLESS WIRE and allowing that they were only going to do one song from that record, which was actually a guitar-pickin’ pleasure (“Tea and Theatre”). Pete then introduced a suite of songs from QUADROPHENIA, which likely represented the grandest musical section of the show overall. The legendary guitarist is justifiably proud of his second double-album rock opera in a five-year span, and what struck me about this section is how under my skin these songs were, in some special little corner, even though I could name the titles on TOMMY much more easily. But musically, this batch of songs: “The Real Me,” “I Am the Sea,” “The Punk and the Godfather,” “5:15” and the genuinely transcendent instrumental “The Rock,” exemplify the art form of rock and roll ascending to heights it rarely goes to, with riffs and cool harmonies and quirky little passages that only an inspired musician can conjure. History has already recorded Pete Townshend as having a kind of ambition and understanding of rock melodrama and emotional release in a truly pioneering manner. This was simply incredible stuff. Rock as ART. Who conceived of such a thing? “Love Reign Over Me,” of course, is indispensable Who, with Daltrey demonstrating that he is taking care of himself… he doesn’t screech excessively… he delivers only the drama and peak moments he knows he NEEDS to these days. His partner has suffered hearing problems and a voice that has “gone away to some strange place,” or however it was he put it. But there is something profound about such an influential group still aiming for the sonic heights, and when they GET there, it is shiver inducing. Such was the case with the closing “Baba O’Riley.” I can’t say enough about this one. Criminy. It’s a rock classic, yes. But the indescribable highlight of the show was having Rog and Pete kick ass backed by an electrifying orchestra on one of their grandest musical offerings, during which leggy violinist Katie Jacoby strolled out in a Saint Louis Blues jersey, attacking her instrument flawlessly on the climax of the song. The crowd went justifiably wild. It seems improbable that the Blues’ first appearance in the Stanley Cup finals, an aging rock band’s bid for one last dramatic chapter (they announced that they have a new album ready for fall, though they didn’t play anything from it), and the expansive power of a full orchestra would combine to such powerful effect here at what most of us came to know as Riverport, with floodwaters wreaking havoc nearby. But man, this was a moment! When you see and hear this sort of spectacle happening and creating another memory so potently, you appreciate it. It was so powerful that I didn’t sense ANY grumbling about the lack of an actual encore. You hit the giddy, transcendent heights and then you say farewell. The Who did so, acknowledging each and every sterling band member like Pete’s brother Simon Townshend and that Zak Starkey fellow, who has been manning the drums for them for years. And heck, how can you NOT appreciate the epic nature of a local violinist having a huge moment onstage? Everyone felt it, trust me.

THE HILLBENDERS meet PETE TOWNSHEND, 2015 (Gary Rea, Mark Cassidy, Nolan Lawrence, Pete Townshend, Chad Graves, producer Louis Jay Meyers, Jim Rea) (uncredited photo)

Springfield’s Hillbenders opened the show with an 8 or 9-song run through a biting mix of rock-flavored bluegrass. This quintet achieved notoriety for recording a bluegrass version of TOMMY that was way more resplendent than anyone expected. Townshend was more than a little impressed; he posed for photos with the band in Nashville a while back, and praised them to the hilt onstage here. It may have seemed odd to those not familiar with these matters that an acoustic bunch from down yonder in southern Missouri would be opening for rock legends, but I thought it was rather profound. Music should be surprising, unpredictable, and adventurous. It should continually shoot up the “sparks” of life. Everyone onstage did that tonight, and it was truly a thrill.


(Compass Records; 2015)


Ambition is an awesome thing. In music, it often leads to groundbreaking work or concepts, and this here album from Springfield, Missouri bluegrass band the Hillbenders is a doozy in that regard. The notion of doing a bluegrass interpretation of the Who’s legendary TOMMY album seems preposterous at first… how could the sonic intricacies and intense storyline of Pete Townsend’s magnum opus be re-interpreted in such a different genre, one as down to earth as Ozarks-style bluegrass? The fact that it works so well says a great deal about the abilities (and pure ATTITUDE) of this band – guitarist Jim Rea, mandolinist Nolan Lawrence, dobro player Chad Graves, banjo player Mark Cassidy and bass player Gary Rea. Pete Townsend himself gave a thumbs-up to the record and invited the band to a show on the Who’s recent tour, doing photos with them. So yeah, this crazy project is a success. But how does it SOUND? Well, the amazing thing is that the band largely sticks to the structure of the original songs. It’s just that in place of electric guitars, Roger Daltrey’s peerless vocals and Keith Moon’s powerhouse drumming, you get, well, acoustic instruments like banjo and dobro. There are no long, jammy bluegrass workouts of the type often seen in the genre… the Hillbenders adhere to the original song structures. That is striking on tracks like the magnificent “Overture,” the carefully rendered “Amazing Journey” (which really IS amazing in this sassy, grassy rendition) and the classic “Pinball Wizard,” a rousing performance in which the band makes sure their energy matches the original, and renders the concern about whether a banjo and mandolin could possibly match what Pete did on the original absolutely moot. “Tommy, Can You Hear Me” is delivered simply and soulfully, with perfectly pleasant harmonies. “Sally Simpson” becomes a truly curious hybrid, a song that, thematically, would likely never see its ilk on another bluegrass album. I mean, this is rock and roll in its energy and pure panache. What a revelation to hear the Who’s richly layered classic rock presented in such a different manner. It says something about the universality of music and themes that the Hillbenders could pull this off so thrillingly.

The Hillbenders (Nolan Lawrence, Chad "Gravy Boat" Graves, Gary Rea, Jim Rea, Mark Cassidy) (publicity photo)
The Hillbenders (Nolan Lawrence, Chad “Gravy Boat” Graves, Gary Rea, Jim Rea, Mark Cassidy) (publicity photo)

Not everything brings the awe, though. Daltrey’s haunting “See Me, Feel Me” performance in its two appearances on the original is a work of vocal majesty that inevitably loses something in the simpler, more rustic approach taken here. Similarly, the drama and shifting elements of “Welcome” as a composition are diminished in this arrangement… maybe by this point, the sound is just getting too samey. And “We’re Not Gonna Take It” is missing an edge it badly needs. But gosh, songs like “Christmas” and especially, “Sensatiion,” are utterly inspired and perfectly performed by the Hillbenders, giving fresh life to compositions that most of us from the classic rock era know like the backs of our hands. There is something revolutionary about hearing a modest Ozark string band fearlessly take on a classic rock opera by legendary Brits, and do it with their own personalities and aesthetic intact, triumphantly. It’s a bold leap into rarified musical territory, and it proves once again that all things are possible if you’ve got courage, chops and, well, a pretty awesome source work. Here’s to the Hillbenders for TRULY “kicking out the jams” in every way.


(August 1, 2015; OLD ROCK HOUSE, Saint Louis MO)

Enter Ye Here (photo credit DARREN TRACY)

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 Hillbenders (Gary Rea, Chad Graves) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)
The Hillbenders (Gary Rea, Chad Graves) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

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 Hillbenders (Gary Rea, Jim Rea) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)
The Hillbenders (Gary Rea, Jim Rea) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

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.

What a cutie! The Hillbenders' fans come in all shapes and sizes. (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)
What a cutie! The Hillbenders’ fans come in all shapes and sizes. (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

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).

The Hillbenders (Mark Cassidy, Chad Graves) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)
The Hillbenders (Mark Cassidy, Chad Graves) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

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.

The Hillbenders (Nolan Lawrence) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)
The Hillbenders (Nolan Lawrence) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

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.

The Hillbenders (Mark Cassidy) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)
The Hillbenders (Mark Cassidy) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

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.