The HillBenders’ Tommy: A Bluegrass Opry Is an Amazing Experience

The HillBenders include (from left) Mark Cassidy, Nolan Lawrence, Gary Rea, Chad "Gravy Boat" Graves, and Jim Rea
The HillBenders include (from left) Mark Cassidy, Nolan Lawrence, Gary Rea, Chad "Gravy Boat" Graves, and Jim Rea
The HillBenders who performed <em>Tommy: A Bluegrass Opry</em> on Saturday, Feb. 18th, for N.C. State LIVE include (from left) Mark Cassidy, Nolan Lawrence, Gary Rea, Chad "Gravy Boat" Graves, and Jim Rea
The HillBenders, who performed Tommy: A Bluegrass Opry on Saturday, Feb. 18th, for N.C. State LIVE, include (from left) Mark Cassidy, Nolan Lawrence, Gary Rea, Chad “Gravy Boat” Graves, and Jim Rea

It’s hard to hear the song lyric, “Ever since I was a young boy I played the silver ball,” without breaking out in your own air-guitar rendition of The Who’s historic 1969 rock opera, Tommy. The HillBenders, wanting to “pair bluegrass with the other music we grew up with,” bring it into their own genre with Tommy: A Bluegrass Opry, which they performed for N.C. State LIVE on Saturday, Feb. 18th, in the Titmus Theatre in N.C. State University’s Frank Thompson Hall in Raleigh, NC. Forty-six years after the album’s original release, Jim Rea’s arrangement of the album is just as electric when played on a five-piece bluegrass band.

Originally composed by The Who’s guitarist Pete Townshend as a rock opera about a deaf, dumb, and blind boy — Tommy sold 20 million copies and was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1998. The HillBenders, with Jim Rea on the guitar, Nolan Lawrence on the mandolin, Chad “Gravy Boat” Graves on dobro, Mark Cassidy on banjo, Gary Rea on bass, and all of them on vocals, bridge the gap between classic rock and bluegrass. Using audience participation, they cover the original album, complete with A Prairie Home Companion-style narration throughout the story, start to finish in just 75 minutes.

Simply put, the concert is an experience. The queer sounds of Gravy Boat Graves’ out-of-this-world style of playing the dobro, mixed with Mark Cassidy’s dizzyingly fast banjo, Jim Rea’s constant bass, and the leading voices of Rea and Nolan Lawrence — it just feels good. Though it’s not just instruments — they use their voices not only for making harmonies with the lyrics but as percussion as well.

The original album by The Who utilized a rock band and an orchestra, with this sound, but the The HillBenders prove that you don’t need anything but five talented musicians. It’s not a static performance either. Throughout the whole performance, each musician takes a turn telling a portion of the story, moves in front of the microphones, and adjusts the amps.

The group creates different levels of volume throughout the stage, with different musicians sometimes playing upstage by the amps and sometimes even strumming together downstage in front of the mics, jamming out together. As a whole, the concert is a testament to Jim Rea’s amazing arrangement of the rock opera. The fact that it’s just made of five instruments and voices makes you think it can’t possibly be real, that’s how good it is.

My one critique, however, is as great as the vocals and the instrumentation were, sometimes the instruments would drown out the singing and the audience would lose full verses of the song. That being said, that might have more to do with the acoustics in Titmus Theatre and less withn the efforts of the performers.

Despite losing some lyrics, overall last Saturday’s performance of Tommy: A Bluegrass Opry was an amazing experience. By the end of the show, the whole audience was on their feet singing along and clapping with the band. Combining The HillBenders’ amazing sound with the rock-and-roll classics that we all grew up with, plus their humorous re-tellings of the Tommy story, make a must-see concert for any age. If you’re looking for an escape, this bridge between rock and bluegrass might be just the concert to go to.

The HillBenders released <em>Tommy: A Bluegrass Opry</em> on Compass Records in June 2015
The HillBenders released Tommy: A Bluegrass Opry on Compass Records in June 2015

SECOND OPINION: Feb. 15th Durham, NC Indy Week mini-preview by Allison Hussey:

TOMMY: A BLUEGRASS OPRY by The HillBenders (N.C. State LIVE, Feb. 18 in the Titmus Theatre in N.C. State University’s Frank Thompson Hall in Raleigh, NC).







Tommy: A Bluegrass Opry (2015 bluegrass tribute album): (official website) and (Facebook page).

The HillBenders (Springfield, MO-based bluegrass band): (official website), (Facebook page), (Twitter page), and (YouTube channel).



Katy Koop is a writer, comedic actor, and stage manager based in Cary, NC. As a freelance writer, her work has been published by Later, Femsplain, and Hello Giggles. When she’s not writing or involved in a local production, she’s tweeting under the handle @katykooped. Click here to read her reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.