Published May 29, 2015As far as rock operas go, it doesn't get much better than the Who's Tommy. And the very idea of the Hillbenders' new project — a bluegrass version of the 1969 concept album — is excellent.
Remaking a classic album like this is tricky, though, because the very people it will appeal to most are those who love the original with a passion. This means you either have to make a faithful copy (in this case, with bluegrass instrumentation), or take the material in an entirely new direction. The Hillbenders don't do either here, and their approach is less than satisfying.
There is an intensity missing from this remake. It's mostly a close rendering of the original album on banjo, mandolin, guitar, Dobro and upright bass. Bluegrass rhythm is added here and there, though some of these insertions are a bit awkward. Playing anything by the Who without drums is admittedly ambitious, but something needs to take the place of Keith Moon's massive, rolling drum explosion, and that something isn't on this album.
What's most impressive about Tommy: A Bluegrass Opry is the fact that it was made in the first place. This certainly was an undertaking — 23 songs, almost an hour long — and the band genuinely sound like they enjoyed every minute. The vocals are the highlight of the record; the Hillbenders sing their hearts out on these songs, to great effect. I can imagine this being a great live show to see, and if this were a live album, it would be a good performance by the band. However, as a studio album, it lacks polish. While imperfections often add to an album's charm, the out of tune notes here are just a sign that the band should have done another take.
Mark Cassidy's banjo rolls add a great deal of interest to "Sparks," and to "Christmas," with its bluegrass-ready rhythm; Nolan Lawrence's mandolin makes "Acid Queen" into a more playful song, and Chad Graves adds some well placed Dobro fill notes to "Go To The Mirror," a song that really showcases the band's harmony singing. "Cousin Kevin" and "Fiddle About" are dark, twisted numbers, and while the first isn't quite creepy enough, they get the second one just right. By "Tommy's Holiday Camp," they've perfected the weird Uncle Ernie character.
Hillbenders fans will like the band's take on this classic album, which is a good departure from their usual "bro-grass" offerings. Fans of Tommy, however, might find it makes them want to listen to the real thing. (Compass)