Missouri band plays bluegrass “Tommy” at Bardo

The Who’s acclaimed rock opera, “Tommy,” has seen many incarnations, including film, ballet, Broadway musical and, of course, the original double album released in 1969. But the one at Bardo Fine and Performing Arts Center last night was definitely the twangiest.

On Sept. 7 The HillBenders performed their signature bluegrass interpretation of The Who’s “Tommy” to a Cullowhee audience of over 150.

The HillBenders at Bardo Arts Center. (Left to right: Chad Graves (dobro), Nolan Lawrence (mandolin), Gary Rea (bass), Jim Rea (guitar), Mark Cassidy (banjo).) Photo by Yustin Riopko.

The five-piece band from Springfield, Missouri was musically tight, and their version of Pete Townshend’s arrangement dually accented the unique timbres and proficiency of the instrumentalists while also blending them together seamlessly to create a distinct version that is still true to the original. The HillBenders may have converted a rock n’ roll album to bluegrass, but they didn’t lose the rocking.

Said bassist Gary Rea: “It’s bluegrass, but we didn’t try to be novelty or hokey – Appalachian or whatever. We tried to honor the rock and roll part. That was really important to us.”

Despite the opry’s heavy subject matter, the band had fun and encouraged the audience to have fun with them. The musicians smiled, danced around the stage and stomped their feet, while the crowd clapped and sang along.

“We’re the blue grass version, right? So there’s no drums,” said Chad Graves, dobro player and the most energetic person in the room. “If you listen to Tommy, it’s a lot of drums – Keith Moon playing drums all over the whole thing.”

Keith Moon ends a Who show by destroying his own drum kit.

What The HillBenders lacked in hard-hitting percussion, they made up for with their full sound and groove. Graves filled Moon’s role as the wild man on the stage, running around, falling to his knees and jumping back up.

Tom and Mary, a couple visiting Sylva from Houston, said the show was fabulous.

“It doesn’t get any better than this. It’s a great night out, but where are the students?”

It’s true that less than a dozen of the audience members were student-age, but even the younger audience members enjoyed the show.

“I decided to come just to see what it’s like,” said Freshman Austin Ross, who attended the concert with his roommate. “We enjoyed it thoroughly, which is surprising. I’d heard of [The Who], but never really listened to them. I’m kind of a country guy, so that’s what pulled me in.”

Jackson County Junior Appalachian Musicians provided an opening act for the HillBenders.