It’s the definitive rock opera. There’s a compelling storyline, beautiful transitions from song to song and scene to scene, and a few numbers that stand on their own as singles still heard on classic rock radio. As a package it’s damn near musical perfection, a record that fans have kept in their hearts and heads for decades. It’s The Who’s “Tommy,” and its omission from any musical discussion puts said discussion in the poppycock category.
Segments of the opera are still staples in Who set-lists, the 1975 film has its moments and the Broadway production pulled down some awards.
“Tommy” has been getting some new legs since 2015 when bluegrass band The HillBenders started performing the record as a “bluegrass opry.”
The HillBenders will perform “Tommy: A Bluegrass Opry” at the Community Concert Hall at Fort Lewis College on Thursday, April 13.
The idea for a bluegrass band to perform an album from the classic rock canon came from an outsider; Louis Meyers was a founder of the Austin music blowout South by Southwest, and had the idea of a bluegrass version of “Tommy” on his brain’s back-burner for years. He stalked The HillBenders at various shows to see if they were the right band for his vision, and they were.
“One day he called up and said, ‘I’ve had this idea for about 20, 25 years and I think you guys are the right band to do it’ and that’s when he laid it on us. He felt like the entire record had the ability to go in that direction. But he wanted it to be the right band. He needed enough rock ’n’ roll; he needed enough bluegrass. He needed enough performance, enough vocal and instrumental ability, and he needed something that would capture the rock ’n’ roll attitude,” said guitar player Jim Rea. “Over the years of him peeking around the corner at our shows, he was taking it in, and he finally decided to lay it on us.”
They pull it off. Sure, there are some things missing: A bluegrass band doesn’t have drums, and The Who had Keith Moon. Some parts of the album are cut short, or combined with other songs. But it’s presented as straight-forward as The Who presented it, as a sophisticated piece of music and storyline with aggressive and emotional playing.
It’s also received the blessing of its creator. Pete Townsend emailed the band saying he dug it, and went as far as inviting them to a Who show in Nashville.
It’s even dragged some classic rock fans out of their narrow confines and turned them onto bluegrass. Hopefully, it’s also dragged some bluegrass fans out of their narrow confines and turned them on to the extensive catalog of Townsend. “Quadrophenia,” “Empty Glass,” “White City,” “Rough Mix,” Tommy, and so much more; Townsend’s catalog is vast and fantastic.
“The Tommy thing turns Who fans onto acoustic music, Americana, and bluegrass. You get these old rockers coming out, and they come up and say ‘I was 13 years old when this came out.’ I think as they’ve gotten older, they’re still classic rock fans, they always will be, and they’ve got their crusty old Who shirt on,” said Rea. “But they’ve also matured into some Americana, some red dirt, some bluegrass, so the mixing of those two, one from their past, a rocking, youthful thing, and a more mature, acoustic rootsy thing. It’s a really cool combination for a lot of these old Who fans.”