Turning ‘Tommy’ Into a ‘Bluegrass Opry’

IMG_5565Recording bluegrass versions of pop or rock songs goes back nearly half a century, to the days when the Country Gentlemen made Manfred Mann’s “Fox on the Run” their own and adapted Steve Goodman’s “City of New Orleans.”

Both of those came out about the time The Who issued their rock opera “Tommy,” which has been turned into a full length Bluegrass Opry a couple of years ago by the HellBenders in a project so successful they’re still touring on it, returning to the Hamilton in D.C. Thursday to run through it all again before an appreciative crowd.

Pete Townshend wrote most of “Tommy” on his acoustic guitar, which makes it easy to adapt to what the Hellbenders were describing as an all acoustic approach (though the bass was amplified and there were some electronic touches of loops and amplified stomps).

And yes, it kind of works, especially when they’re doing the best known single from the work, “Pinball Wizard,” with Mark Cassidy’s banjo picking overtime.

That they’re doing the whole thing, beginning to end, in order, is half the appeal, given the opportunity  to hear some of the individual songs again, from the plaintive opening “1921” to “Sally Simpson” and  “I’m Free.”

Some of the less than 30 second interstitials sound as corny as ever, from “Miracle Cure,” to “There’s a Doctor I’ve Found.” Even harder to hear as entertainment is the child abuse archly approached in “Christmas” and “Fiddle About” — a bluegrass title if there ever was one (and, alas, there was no fiddle in the quintet).

One of the best things about the HillBenders adaptation was its cover variant – which was projected behind them on stage all night, the blue criss cross ribbons of the original turned to brown, as if they were slats in a country picnic basket.

Guitarist Jim Rea seemed to have the right tone vocally on songs originally sung by Roger Daltrey. But mandolinist Nolan Lawrence took over lead vocals a lot of the time, with a big operatic voice that seemed even louder in the mix and didn’t have much to do with rock or bluegrass for that matter. Maybe he was prepping for a bluegrass rendition of Kansas “Carry On Wayward Son” or some such.

There wasn’t a lot of instrumental work that stood out either, surprisingly. Even in pieces made for string interaction, like “Sparks” were truncated; “Underture” wasn’t there at all.

Aside from Cassidy’s banjo there was little in standout solos, perhaps because they were sticking to the original so much (and even cutting 20 minutes from it in the process). Performing work from a band that featured the powerhouse rhythm section of Keith Moon and John Entwistle will be lacking without a decisive bass — and having no drums at all.

Playing a shorter version of “Tommy” isn’t a sin; the Who themselves played only highlights of it in their most famous live performances of it, at Woodstock or the Isle of Wight.

The HillBenders, out of Springfield, Mo., soldiered on best they could, with Chad “Gravyboat” Graves’ dobro providing the main sonic slashes. As for stagecraft, he and Cassidy moved upstage a couple of times or exchanged places; Lawrence never tried a windmill move on his mandolin.

It was a shock to hear narration from time to time to explain the “story” of “Tommy” (always its weakest component, which also tripped up the film and Broadway versions). It was clear, though, the interruptions were largely necessary to allow time for some tuning between songs.

Once the main event rushed to its conclusion, the band had time for a handful of other songs to round things out. So they included a spacier instrumental of their own writing, and just about the only straight bluegrass tune of the night, before they returned to rock.

That meant an “Oh, Darling!” from the Beatles and another stab at the Who, with “I Can See for Miles” (rather than, say, the almost readymade string band offerings of “The Who by Numbers”).

What’s next for the HillBenders? Well, there’s gold in them thar rock. So they will be joining with Keller Williams for a Tom Petty tribute album and tour that’s already got a name: PettyGrass.

Opening for the HellBenders, the Chapel Hill quintet Ellis Dyson and the Shambles came out blazing with a sound that mixed old timey string band with 30s hot jazz and a touch of klezmer, with two horns augmenting banjo guitar and bass.

If a bluegrass band playing a rock opera wasn’t enough of a novelty, the Shambles was all about it, behind the mugging of frontman Dyson, whose songs sped up and slowed down for drama, not for musical pleasure.

You almost expected someone to pull out a kazoo at any moment. Compared to this band, the Squirrel Nut Zippers are the Emerson String Quartet.


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