Replaying The Silver Ball

Replaying The Silver Ball

HillBenders put twist on rock ‘n’ roll classic


“He’s a pinball wizard

“There has to be a twist…”

In 1969, Rolling Stone called “Tommy” — the rock opera written by Pete Townshend and released by The Who as a double-album set — “probably the most important milestone in pop since Beatlemania. For the first time, a rock group has come up with a full-length cohesive work that could be compared to the classics.”

Townshend talked to Rolling Stone about the greater meaning of the story of Tommy, a young man left deaf, blind and mute by a trauma he experienced, as a symbol of humanity’s own self-imposed handicaps and, at the same time, a way to redemption. “In Tommy’s mind, everything is incredible, meaningless beauty.”

But to the Rolling Stone critic, “on the simplest level, the songs are magnificent, simply as rock.” And audiences have agreed for 45 years. The original album has sold 20 million copies and has been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame for “historical, artistic and significant value.” In 2003, Rolling Stone ranked “Tommy” No. 96 on its list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.

Imagine, then, “Tommy” performed on banjo, dobro, mandolin, bass and guitar by a bluegrass band called The HillBenders.

It’s not as fantastic as it sounds, says Jim Rea, HillBenders guitarist and the arranger of the “bluegrass opry.” As he explains, the Springfield, Mo.,-born band “all had rock ‘n’ roll in our history in one way or another.” But beyond that was a smorgasbord of influences. One member came from an opera background, another from rap, a third toured with the Grateful Dead. “We all came together with the bluegrass thing,” says Rea, but a bluegrass interpretation of “Tommy” wasn’t the band’s idea. It was conceived and produced by SXSW co-founder and longtime musician/producer Louis Jay Meyers, who “just laid it on us one day,” Rea remembers.

“He had been wanting to do it for like 20 years, and he just said, ‘I think this is the right time, and you’re the right band,’” Rea says. “I was thrilled; being a lifelong ‘Tommy’ fan, I was a ‘yes’ right away. I went home and started messing around with some of the tunes, and it flipped over to bluegrass so easily. We did three or four songs and gave them to Lewis, and he had us in the studio a month or two later. We recorded it to 2-inch tape like in the old days.”

Rea turns somber.

“We lost Lewis to a heart attack about a year later, but he got to see the blossoming of it. Word got back to Pete Townshend’s people, and we were invited to a Who show in Nashville. Lewis was there for that. I still remember the complete joy in Lewis’ face.”

The critics too were surprisingly happy with the undertaking.

“You haven’t heard ‘Acid Queen’ until you’ve seen it sung by a bearded man with a mandolin,” Billboard wrote. “The HillBenders, a talented five-piece band from Missouri, proved to be the perfect group to execute this ‘Whograss’ concept.”

Rea says audiences are still rocking out to the bluegrass version.

“Even in more conservative venues, we encourage people to sing along, clap your hands, let it still be a rock show,” he says. “Our demographic is folks who were teenagers when it came out, and they bring their families. What we do is familiar, but in this new imaginative form. You can just see the decades rolling back in their eyes.”



‘Tommy: A Bluegrass Opry’

With The HillBenders

WHEN — 7:30 p.m. Oct. 5

WHERE — Faulkner Performing Arts Center on the University of Arkansas campus in Fayetteville

COST — $15-$25

INFO — 575-5387

Categories: Cover Story