Ok, I’ll admit it. I’m a pretty big Who fan, from their early stuff at least through Who’s Next. But especially Tommy. My first Tommy album was The London Symphony Orchestra version … The perfect vehicle for bringing a young classical music fan into the scary long-haired hippie freak world of Rock ‘n’ Roll. (That and the Moody Blues Days of Future Passed … But that’s another story …)
And after falling in love with this album, I find it’s not the original! There’s a rock band version (ahem … did I mention I was inexperienced?).
At first, I chafed. It sounded so different from the real version I was having a tough time of it. But then it started to sound good to me. This taught a symphony orchestra lover into a rock fan (and then the movie version bringing me into multitracked synthetic string ensembles … also another story)
So why am I telling you this? Because I just discovered an album that is threatening to broaden my musical horizons yet again. The album? Tommy. No not any of of the lame new versions Pete Townshend is releasing to try to milk it for a few more years. This version is by a band called the HillBenders. And, yes, it’s a faithful version of the original rock version by The Who.
The Hillbenders are a bluegrass band. Did you see that coming? I sure as hell didn’t. Did I mention the full album name is “Tommy: A Bluegrass Opry”?And this version is bluegrass, complete with strumming, picking and body-slapping guitars and mandolins, twanging (or spacey) dobros and lightning-fingered banjo playing. It’s not just good, it’s right up there with the original in every way. Every bit as exciting, innovative and heart-rending as the original. No drums or synths, though … can I stand it? I find I can. Easily.
The vocals are attributed only to “The HillBenders,” and they’re phenomenal, though watching their videos it looks like mandolinist Nolan Lawrence is their lead vocalist. He’s good. His vocals are as good as Roger Daltrey’s originals without sounding that much like him. These are rock vocals, and they’re what sell this concept (though perhaps if Uncle Ernie was being sung by a yodeling cowboy vocalist … OK, just a thought …). The arrangements manage to be simultaneously faithful and innovative. How can it sound so different yet also the same? How do they do that?
I could say this album is going to be among my top releases of 2015, but feh … Big deal. This album, like the original Tommy, will open up a whole new area of the musical world. Just as the original led me to rock and thence Progressive Rock, the HillBenders will lead me to Progressive Bluegrass. And I didn’t even know it existed. I just know there’s more …
Have I ever told you I have a complete score in my head for a New Wave version of “Supper’s Ready”? It would sound like a mashup of The Cars, Ultravox and Thomas Dolby. Maybe with some Bill Nelson too. No, wait. Don’t go. It would be really cool. Really.
The HillBenders are:
Mark Cassidy – Banjo
Gary Rea – Bass
Jim Rea – Guitar
Nolan Lawrence – Mandolin/Lead Vocals
Chad “Gravy Boat” Graves – Dobro
Down To My Last Dollar (10)
Can You Hear Me? (12)
Tommy: A Bluegrass Opry (15)