If you’re into bluegrass, you’ve probably heard Luther Wright & the Wrongs‘ 2001 cult classic Rebuild the Wall, an acoustic version of the Pink Floyd movie soundtrack album. In a similar vein, with considerably less of a mean-spirited satirical edge, the Hillbenders’ Tommy: A Bluegrass Opry, an impressively faithful newgrass take on the Who, is currently burning up the charts and streaming at Spotify. They’re bringing it to the big room at the Rockwood on June 18 at 7 PM on an excellent twinbill with honkytonkers the Honeycutters, Cover is $12; the venue isn’t clear on who’s playing first, but both bands are worth seeing if Americana is your thing. And if you feel like nursing your $15 beer and making a night of it, sardonic oldtimey swing guitarist/crooner Seth Kessel & the Two Cent Band play their jaunty, fun, original tunes afterward at around 10:30.
It’s tempting to say that audiences in 2015 will probably prefer the Hillbenders’ version over the Who’s original. Forget for a minute that these days, bluegrass is a whole lot more popular than bombastic stadium rock. For starters. this bluegrass band has virtuoso chops and impeccable taste, recording the album to two-inch tape. While the Who obviously also recorded in analog, they were still a garage band at heart when they made the original. What’s most surprising about the new album is how well the incidental music between the radio hits translates to bluegrass – and, quite frankly, how much the band improves it. A prime example is Sparks, where the dobro and banjo really soar. What’s less surprising is how well the Hillbenders do the hits. For one, just the absence of Roger Daltrey’s florid vocals is a big plus. And while it’s probably unfair to weigh how much more texture, and dynamics, and flair guitarist Jim Rea, mandolinist Nolan Lawrence, dobro player Chad Graves and banjo player Mark Cassidy add, by comparison to all of Pete Townshend’s overdubs, the ultimate result is that the Hillbenders’ version is arguably even more epic. And what more could you possibly want from a rock opera? That probably explains why Townshend has given his blessing to the album.
The one thing that it doesn’t offer is a blockbuster rhythm section, which makes sense: Gary Rea is a perfectly good bluegrass bassist, eschewing John Entwhistle’s sinewy attack for a purist oldschool approach. And the band sidesteps the issue of trying to match any of Keith Moon’s contributions, probably a wise choice. They also don’t attempt to clarify or expand on the original’s bare-bones plot: best to look at this as a catchy collection of newgrass pop songs imbued with tongue-in-cheek humor and played with first-class chops, rather than any kind of profound statement. And the hits are a revelation. You can understand the lyrics to Pinball Wizard – how’s “Bally table king” for 60s cultural resonance? Go to the Mirror matches the junior existentialist angst of the original, and We’re Not Gonna Take It has even more defiance. After all this, ironically, the original seems pretty lightweight.