By Rachael E. Worthington
“Anyone convinced that bluegrass is backwoods music has had their head in the sand of commercial radio these past few years” says Nolan Lawrence The HillBenders mandolinist.
His band is taking an unconventional approach to The Who’s classic rock opera — performing “Tommy” in its entirety with a mix of spot-on musicianship outstanding vocals and a mess of bluegrass passion on January 22 at The Lincoln Center.
The HillBenders consist of Lawrence Mark Cassidy on banjo Gary Rea on bass Chad Graves on Dobro and Jim Rea on guitar. Aside from their genre blending this band stands out by way of stage presence. Shows are high energy with an in-your-face attitude and audiences find themselves clapping stomping dancing and singing along. Purists don’t always agree with their approach — typical bluegrass is fast-paced but due to the complexity of the pieces performers often remain stagnant.
How did a bluegrass band decide to perform a classic rock opera? They were approached by an old friend the late founder of South by Southwest Louis Meyers who was looking for his next big project. He was having dinner with Lawrence when Meyers confided a crazy idea he’d been sitting on for the past 20 years — “Tommy” bluegrass-style. Lawrence laughed aloud and asked who would do such a thing and Meyers looked him square in the eye — the answer was the HillBenders.
In 7½ years of touring Lawrence says that Colorado is one of his favorite places to play and visit. He says it’s always evident when an audience is really engaging with the music and when a concert is just a distraction. “Colorado fans always tend to have that little spark that little piece of magic and it’s a joy and a pleasure to perform in Colorado because of how the people react.”
If you are wondering if you should take a chance on this show you should; but don’t take our word for it. In a feature titled 50 Best Things We Saw at SXSW 2015 Rolling Stone stated this about the HillBenders version of “Tommy” “You haven’t heard ‘Acid Queen’ until you’ve seen it sung by a bearded man with a mandolin. They faithfully replicated the songs even giving short synopses of the plot at key points but embellished them with banjo mandolin and dobro to give the music an extra moonshine kick. The HillBenders a talented five-piece band from Missouri proved to be the perfect group to execute this ‘Whograss’ concept.”
Come an hour early to the show and enjoy bluegrass from Fort Collins’ own T-Band and drink specials.