As a wide-eyed 10-year old, I recall being fascinated by a newspaper review of The Who’s 1970 performance of its new rock opera Tommy at New York City’s Metropolitan Opera House. How I wished I was old enough to be able to go to such things! A few years later, I wound up wearing out my 8-track tape of the album, and I would eventually get to see the band play some of it live.
But who would have thought that some 45-plus years later, I would be sitting underground in a cave in Middle Tennessee watching a bluegrass band reinvent Pete Townshend’s musical masterpiece.
Bluegrass Underground has taken the concert experience to a new level. (Pun intended!) By all means, make plans to watch for next year’s lineup and attend one of these shows. It’s an incredible experience to sit comfortably 333 feet below the surface in 55-degree temperature and hear some great live music. Their schedule is also not strictly bluegrass with artists such as Widespread Panic and Jason Isbell having played the cave. Some shows also make their way to their namesake PBS television series.
As for The HillBenders, this talented quintet has over the last few years mastered their re-creation of Tommy. In a remarkable arrangement by band member Jim Rea, the Benders use the tools of bluegrass to present an intensely enjoyable presentation of the now-classic story of the deaf, dumb and blind boy who learns to play pinball. Getting the attention they deserve, while in Nashville for a Who show at the Arena, Townshend sought a meeting with the band in May 2015 around their show at the Station Inn.
The cave door to Cumberland Caverns opened at noon and The Benders started promptly at 1pm. After warming up with a short opening set of some traditional numbers (and a cool MGMT cover), the band took a quick break before launching into Tommy. All but the bass player shared in lead vocals in their performance of the opera in its entirety. Along the way, they even gave some brief narration to help everyone follow along with the story.
Musically the bluegrass sound added a whole new dimension to the opera. Most notable was the banjo mimicking Townshend’s lead guitar and the dobro covering the horn parts. (No mandolin was smashed at the end of the set though.) The sound in the cave was great although perhaps there was just a little too much bottom making me want to turn up the treble knob a notch or two.
Encoring after a thunderous standing ovation, the band stuck with The Who and led us all through a fun sing-along of “I Can See for Miles” which was followed by a second final encore of a bluegrass number.
In addition to making the 90-minute journey from Nashville to the cave, I also strongly encourage you catch The HillBenders remarkable performance of Tommy. In the past they have played it locally at both the Station Inn and Third & Lindsley so stay on watch.
Hearing them do such a splendid version of The Beatles’ “Oh Darling” made me think that there could be a bluegrass Abbey Road in the works. However, after seeing what they did to Tommy, my vote is for them to continue in the same vein and go for The Who’s other rock opera, Quadraphenia! Why not?
- Hey Boys (Beyond reach cover)
- Kids (MGMT cover)
- Sodbuster (instrumental)
- Riding That Midnight Train (Stanley Brothers cover)
- [unknown song]
- Don’t Look at Me (Johnny Mullins cover)
- Oh Darling (The Beatles cover)
- Tommy: A Bluegrass Opry
- I Can See for Miles (The Who cover)
- [unknown song]
Jim Rea – Vocals and Acoustic Guitar
Nolan Lawrence – Vocals and Mandolin
Gary Rea – Backing Vocals and Bass
Chad “Gravyboat” Graves – Vocals and Dobro
Mark Cassidy – Vocals and Banjo