The HillBenders Bring Bluegrass Re-imagining of The Who’s ‘Tommy’ to Musikfest

In addition to being a locally-coveted performance opportunity in the Lehigh Valley, Musikfest has grown to appeal to bands from outside our region – including those across the country and around the world.

Take The HillBenders, a Springfield, MO-based bluegrass outfit who will be making two appearances at the nation’s largest free outdoor music festival; one consisting of their original material, and the other showcasing the band’s re-creation of one of rock’s most iconic albums.

The five-piece will take to Musikfest’s Americaplatz stage – known the rest of the year as the Levitt Pavilion at SteelStacks – on Monday, August 7 at 7:30 p.m. to perform “Tommy: A Bluegrass Opry.” The performance will feature, in full, the band’s re-imagining of The Who’s iconic rock opera into a full-length bluegrass tribute.


Cover art for The HillBenders’ ‘Tommy: A Bluegrass Opry.’

The project, released as an album in 2015, began when SXSW co-founder Louis Jay Meyers hand-picked the band to pull off the feat. Guitarist Jim Rea recalls that Meyers cited the band’s big vocals and energetic, percussive, and intense stage performance as the reason they were chosen for the project.

“It meant a lot to me personally, because I already knew the record,” said Rea. “Having someone like Louis trust the band and having his confidence meant a lot to me, and validated a lot of years of hard work that I’ve been moving toward. It was a real treat, and came at a really good time in our band. We were not sure what we were going to do next.”

So much of the band’s on-stage energy comes from dobro player Chad “Gravy” Graves, who Rea commends for his intensity.

“We call him ‘The Keith Moon of the dobro,’” Rea said. “That really helped drive the sound forward on this record.”

It all will come together at Musikfest during a 90-minute set that will feature a healthy number of opportunities for audience participation.

“The thing about Tommy is, there’s the ‘Pinball Wizard’ single,” Rea said. “We get people stomping their feet, clapping their hands, and then it’s interesting, because you see different spots in the record where people are catching onto this or that hook. People connect to different songs. As a whole, the record works.”

“We expect people to sing along,” Rea added. “We ask them, and sometimes, we demand it.”

Hopefully, that stomp-and-sing-along atmosphere will carry over to Tuesday night, August 8, when The HillBenders head to the festival’s North Side to take the Volksplatz stage at 7 p.m. for a set of their own material.

The second set, Rea notes, is all part of the band’s bigger plan to let its own material and personalities shine.

“We wanted Louis to know that if we did (Tommy), it was all about a bigger picture moving forward as a whole,” Rea said. “We made a deal that, when we perform this ‘Tommy’ thing, we usually contract in a 30-minute set of our own stuff, because we want people to see that other side of us and get to know us. We have five unique personalities in the band, and each of us sings, writes, and has different influences.”

Rea hopes that the band’s Volksplatz set will bring all of that forward, showcasing The HillBenders’ varied backgrounds through the group’s progressive bluegrass style.

“Our personalities weren’t formed in bluegrass music,” Rea notes. “Gravy came from the bluegrass scene, but one guy was a rapper, one was an opera singer, and my cousin (bassist Gary Rea) toured with The Grateful Dead. You’re going to get variety, and a lot of it. That’s what we’ve prided ourselves on.”

For more information about The HillBenders, visit them online. To hear “Tommy: A Bluegrass Opry,” check it out below!

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