STORY WRITTEN BY BRIAN BINGAMAN
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Springfield, Mo. group The HillBenders are on a quest to bridge the gap between musical genres and fans.
They’ll be doing a set of their original bluegrass on the main stage the evening of Saturday Aug. 15 at the 54th annual Philadelphia Folk Fest, but what’s really going to turn heads is their performance at 2 p.m. that same day on the Camp Stage of “Tommy: A Bluegrass Opry.” That’s The HillBenders’ on-point, in-its-entirety remake of The Who’s 1969 rock opera that brings a new perspective to the work while paying tribute to its creators. The “bluegrass opry” concept was the brainchild of South by Southwest co-founder Louis Jay Meyers.
Because the five-piece band doesn’t have a drummer, they bypassed the instrumental “Underture” for their recording of “Tommy,” which was released in June. But, said mandolin player and lead singer Nolan Lawrence, they do play “Underture” during their “Tommy” live shows. “We just kind of rearrange it for solos. We add a little flavor to it here and there. Our dobro player, Chad, we call ‘the Keith Moon of the dobro’,” said Lawrence, referring to The Who’s legendary showman drummer. “Our style of playing is very aggressive and very percussive.”
Also in the band are Mark Cassidy on banjo, Gary Rea on bass, and guitarist Jim Rea, whom Lawrence credited with carefully mapping out The Who’s dramatic rock band instrumentation and rearranging it for a high-energy acoustic combo. “He knew the record front to back,” he said of Rea.
What does Pete Townshend think? Well, there’s a photo of him backstage with the band in Nashville posted at www.hillbenders.com.
While all folk festivals are about hanging out and playing in the campgrounds, Lawrence said, Philly Folk Fest audiences “have such an appreciation for the music on the stage.” When The HillBenders last appeared there, “we were blown away how accepting … everybody was.”
“We’re gonna come out guns blazing,” Lawrence promised.
When told Lyle Lovett was going to be on the main stage the same night as The HillBenders, Lawrence enthusiastically mentioned that Lovett is “by far one of my favorite songwriters,” adding that he grew up in the same part of Texas where Lovett got his start.
Check out www.whograss.com.