Originally released in 1969, The Who’s album Tommy is not only one of the group’s most quintessential releases, it also remains one of the music’s most famous rock operas, telling the story of a boy who witnessed a tragic death as a child who subsequently becomes catatonic.
The album was a definitive step forward for The Who, which had already found global success with pop hits like “Can’t Explain,” “My Generation,” and others. In 2003, when compiling its picks for the 500 greatest albums of all time, Rolling Stone Magazine placed Tommy in the 96th position.
This Saturday night at Saint John’s Imperial Theatre, Tommy will be given a bluegrass makeover courtesy of Springfield, Missouri band The HillBenders. With three studio releases to its credit – 2010’s Down To My Last Dollar, Can You Hear Me (2012) and 2015’s Tommy: A Bluegrass Opry – the group’s incendiary live performances have played a key role in expanding its fanbase, both at home and abroad.
HillBenders guitarist Jim Rea says the notion of reinventing Tommy in a bluegrass vein was the brainchild of Louis Meyers, the founder of the internationally influential SXSW festival.
“We originally met Lou at the International Bluegrass Music Awards in Nashville seven or eight years ago,” Rea says. “We became friends and spent a lot of time together, but it seemed as though he was always popping up everywhere we went. Before long, he confided to us that he had this idea to remake Tommy in a bluegrass vein and felt we were the right band to take on the project.”
Although Meyers may have been responsible for planting a unique seed with Rea and his bandmates, the guitarist shares his fondness for Tommy actually dates back to his teen years.
“My mother took me to see a theatre production of Tommy around the time I was 13 years old, and the next day I got the record. I can’t quite put my finger on why, but it became one of those records that was essential to my formative years. You know how certain songs or albums stay with you, depending on the point in which they arrive in your life? Just as I was starting to find myself as a teenager and as a person, Tommy was that record for me,” Rea says.
Though some may believe the worlds of rock and bluegrass music couldn’t be more diametrically opposed, Rea believes the two are more closely intertwined than what people see – or hear – on the surface.
When it comes to The Who, however, subtlety is not a part of the group’s vernacular. After all, this is a band that, for many years, held the record for holding one of the world’s loudest concerts – their May 31, 1976 concert at London’s open-air stadium The Valley registered at an ear-splitting 126 dB.
Rea jokes that although The HillBenders aren’t looking to shatter any such records with their live shows, he says the unassuming nature of the group’s acoustic instruments bring a power of their own to the concert stage.
“When you look at The Who, and the role that each of its members played in the band, it’s [drummer] Keith Moon that stands out as one of the key driving forces behind the group. We don’t have a drummer in our band, which I think leads to some scepticism on the part of Who fans as to whether or not we can faithfully replicate the album. When we play our instruments, though, we use them in percussive ways that help bridge that gap of not having a drummer,” Rea says.
The HillBenders’ take on Tommy has proven so successful that they continue actively touring the record more than two years after its release.
Rea shares that one of the undisputed highlights of the last two years happened just few months following the release of Tommy: A Bluegrass Opry, when Who guitarist Pete Townshend invited The HillBenders to attend his group’s performance in Nashville. Not only did they have the chance to meet and talk with Townshend, the guitarist also gave his blessing to the group’s unique take on one of his most famous works.
“We’re a band that’s in it for the long game, but it’s still pretty surreal to look back on everything that’s happened since we released Tommy,” Rea admits.
What: The HillBenders present Tommy: A Bluegrass Opry
When: Saturday March 18, 7:30 p.m.
Where: Imperial Theatre, 12 King Square South, Saint John
Tickets are $32 for subscribers, $36 for others. Advance tickets are available at the Imperial Theatre Box Office, by phone (506) 674-4100 and online at imperialtheatre.nb.ca