English rock band The Who released its fourth studio album “Tommy,” 50 years ago this May.
Guitarist Pete Townsend composed most of the music on the album. The rock opera inspired a Seattle Opera production, an orchestral version, a film and Broadway musical.
So it’s only natural that Springfield, Missouri bluegrass band The HillBenders would take to the road and present a full-length bluegrass tribute complete with banjo, dobro, mandolin, bass and guitar.
The group will bring its full-length bluegrass tribute of the classic rock album at 8 p.m., April 5, to the Lancaster Performing Arts Center, 750 West Lancaster Blvd.
“It’s kind of a head-scratcher for some people when they read about it,” guitarist and musical director Jim Rea said in a telephone interview from his Springfield, Missouri home.
The rock opera tells the story about a deaf, dumb and blind boy, including his experiences with life and the relationship with his family. The original album sold 20 million copies and has been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame for “historical, artistic and significant value.” In 2003, Rolling Stone magazine ranked “Tommy” number 96 on its list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.
The live performance is a full 75-minute show covering the original album from start to finish with audience participation.
“This is high-energy rock and roll meets bluegrass. We expect the audience to sing and clap along if they know the music,” Rea said, adding they will guide the audience through the “Tommy” story.
The HillBenders’ “Tommy” performances attract Who fans and bluegrass fans.
“It’s got enough of each world in it, the show does, that it can cater to both of them,” Rea said. “We usually get to do our own music toward the end of the show for 10 or 15 minutes at a time for an encore, so it’s a great way for us to kind of get some of our own stuff in front of an audience.”
Louis Jay Meyers, the late SXSW co-founder and banjo player, first conceived the idea of a bluegrass “Tommy” years ago.
“He said he was looking for the right time in his life and the right band to do it,” Rea said.
Myers found the right band when he met The HillBenders. They produced a full recording of the album after rehearsing for a month, straight. The cover album was released in 2015.
“He took us around the world with it,” Rea said. “We were in Australia when he passed away (in March 2016) from a sudden blood clot and so it’s very sad, but we continue to do the show in his honor and we’re very excited to be coming out to California with it.”
Some of “Tommy’s” 24 songs could easily be “flipped” to bluegrass music, Rea who arranged the music, said.
“We tried to stay true to the record,” he said. “We weren’t going to force anything that didn’t feel right, so much of the record is in the same style as the original, except we have the bluegrass instrumentation. So about half the tune are ‘flipped’ for bluegrass and then the other ones we just kept them the way they were, interpreted them on our own instruments and added some vocal harmonies here and there.”
Tickets cost $24 for orchestra and $19 for balcony. For details call 661-723-5950 or visit www.lpac.org.