The HillBenders — a hard-charging bluegrass outfit from Missouri — have been getting tons of attention lately for their brilliant bluegrass remix of the Who’s iconic rock opera Tommy. Turning that pivotal moment in rock history upside down but still retaining its stunning creative juice, they’ve recorded their own album, with Pete Townshend’s blessing, called Tommy: A Bluegrass Opry, and will descend on the Americana Music Festival in Nashville Thursday night, September 17th, to showcase it.
But for fans who can’t attend the festival, the band has also been filming and releasing videos of each legendary track, showing exactly how the tale of a deaf, dumb blind boy would fit in the traditional Appalachian context of acoustic guitar, banjo, stand-up bass, mandolin and Dobro. And the fit is just about seamless.
Rolling Stone Country has the premiere of their latest video — the instrumental “Sparks,” Track Five in the original 24-track, four-act opus.
Performing inside a store filled with oddities and antiques, the HillBenders fit right in with their surroundings. They don’t cover “Sparks” note for note, but instead translate it for acoustic instruments — something the Who likely never dreamed of. The result is similar and definitely familiar, but not the same.
In place of swelling feedback lines and freak-out drums, Chad Graves begins the lead with a blazing fast, slithering Dobro line before the first breakdown. Mark Cassidy jumps in with a banjo run before giving way to Jim Rea and his guitar; then the entire ensemble picks up Townshend’s original melody line and chops its way to a pointed finish.
And in case you were wondering how the HellBenders will handle one of the most enduring tracks from the original Tommy album, here’s “Pinball Wizard” too.