Bluegrass Band Takes on ‘The Who’ Classics

Photo by Nicole Williams

Missouri-based band “The Hillbenders” took the Sharp Theater by storm on Sunday. Barreling through a set chock-full of upbeat, original tunes, The Hillbenders came out with a mission to present their sound before diving into the night’s main event, a bluegrass tribute to the musical “The Who’s Tommy.”

From the first song, the band was pulling the crowd into the show. Constant clapping and stomping signified the audience’s enjoyment in The Hillbenders' signature sound.

After finishing the initial seven-song set of originals and a few non-“Who” covers, The Hillbenders came back to the stage to continue the night’s event. Opening strong with the “Overture of Tommy,” the band took the crowd on a ride through the story. Calling to classics like “Pinball Wizard," “I’m Free” and “See Me, Feel Me,” The Hillbenders prepared the crowd for the journey they were about to embark on.

Both mandolinist Nolan Lawrence and guitarist Jim Rea really proved their vocal abilities, trading off and complimenting each other well. Lawrence taking the role of Roger Daltrey and Rea assuming the role of Pete Townsend, their voices meshed well and the harmonies sounded clean, cut and crisp. All five members came together to form a five-part harmony that sounded full and complete.

For a band of only five stringed instruments, the group sounded mighty, even without any percussive instruments. Blasting through the classic album and many renditions of the musical, the band showed true mastery of the material. The reimagining of these genre-defining songs in a bluegrass styling truly gave the album a new life, a life that has the absolute potential to live on for years to come.

The strongest part of this performance was the display of musicianship. The transposition of guitar to banjo and dobro to mandolin from arranger/guitarist Rea was a beautiful display of talent. There was never a dull moment, even in the instrumental portions of the show, with wild banjo solos and passionate dobro slides. The crowd was in constant awe due, in part, to each musician’s talent and skill in their respective instrument.

Lawrence showed off his huge range on tunes like “Acid Queen,” and Rea proved his prominent control with songs like “Tommy Can You Hear Me” and “We’re Not Gonna Take It."

The Hillbenders won’t soon be forgotten because of the high intensity, crowd engaging show that the bluegrass group put on.