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The HillBenders’ “Tommy” LIVE! at Toms River’s Grunin Center

By Spotlight Central

originally published: 04/27/2018

The HillBenders’ “Tommy” LIVE! at Toms River’s Grunin Center

Some people may consider Friday the 13th to be unlucky, but not tonight’s Friday, April 13, 2018 crowd at Toms River NJ’s Grunin Center of the Arts! These lucky music fans are all here to experience a rare presentation of The Who’s Tommy: A Bluegrass Opry performed live by the St. Louis, Missouri bluegrass band, The HillBenders!

Introducing 1969’s Tommy by The Who as “the greatest rock opera of all time,” the members of The HillBenders take the Grunin Center stage — Chad “Gravyboat” Graves on dobro, Nolan Lawrence on mandolin, Gary Rea on bass, Jim Rea on acoustic guitar, and Mark Cassidy on banjo.

The HillBenders’ “Tommy” LIVE! at Toms River’s Grunin Center

Beginning with the “Overture,” the group starts right in with banjo picking, bass slapping, guitar strumming, dobro sliding, and staccato mandolin strumming and background vocal harmonies giving an ethereal sound to this countrified “opry” version of Tommy’s opening number.

The appreciative crowd applauds before The HillBenders segue into “Captain Walker,” arranger Jim Rea’s complex vocal harmonies announcing the birth of Mrs. Walker’s son, Tommy, to guitar strumming and dobro sound effects.

The HillBenders’ “Tommy” LIVE! at Toms River’s Grunin Center

Taking a moment to verbally explain the story of Tommy, the musicians reveal that Tommy’s father, Captain Walker, has gone missing in action. His mother remarries, but Captain Walker returns home and, in a fit of rage, murders Tommy’s stepfather right in front of Tommy’s eyes.

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In “1921,” the HillBenders’ vocalists — voicing the role of Tommy’s mother — emphatically sing,“You didn’t hear it/You didn’t see it/You won’t say nothing to no-one/Never in your life.”

As a result, Tommy becomes deaf, dumb, and blind. Going on to rely on his sense of touch and imagination on his “Amazing Journey,” on this well-known number, the musicians — notably Chad “Gravy Boat” Graves on dobro — take turns coming forward to perform for the audience.

As Graves plays his dobro — an acoustic resonator guitar which produces sound by carrying the vibration of the strings through the bridge to metal cones known as resonators — he not only holds the instrument down low by his feet but also holds it up high in the air at strategic times.

The HillBenders’ “Tommy” LIVE! at Toms River’s Grunin Center

The interplay between the musicians helps to bring Tommy’s amazing journey to life for this audience who appreciates the band’s talent and reacts with hearty applause!

As the story progresses, a man known as The Hawker claims that his wife can cure Tommy. As such, on “Eyesight to the Blind: The Hawker,” the group sings, “She’s got the power to heal you/Never fear/She’s got the power to heal you/Never fear/Just a word from her lips/And the deaf begin to hear.”

Segueing into “Christmas,” the tempo quickens and Jim Rea’s expressive lead pleads, “Tommy, can you hear me?” Then, Nolan Lawrence emotionally portrays Tommy by asking if anyone can “see me, feel me, touch me, heal me” as he deftly accompanies himself on the mandolin.

Through the narrative, we learn that Tommy’s parents alternately leave him with his sadistic “Cousin Kevin,” his inappropriate Uncle Ernie who likes to “Fiddle About,” and The Hawker’s drug-addicted wife, “The Acid Queen,” who provides Tommy with a hallucinogenic experience by giving him LSD. Throughout this trio of songs, The HillBenders use their acoustic instruments and voices to communicate the energy of The Who’s original concept rock opera to the audience, but without the benefit of electric guitars or drums.

The HillBenders’ “Tommy” LIVE! at Toms River’s Grunin Center

On one of the highlight performances of the evening, Jim Rea’s acoustic guitar strumming introduces “Pinball Wizard.” On Rea’s tasty bluegrass string and vocal arrangement, The HillBenders invite the audience to sing along on the famous “Sure plays a mean pinball” lyric, as they twang their strings and make the music of Tommy come alive!

Following excited applause, banjo player Mark Cassidy continues the story about Tommy, telling the audience they are looking for a doctor to cure the boy, and inquiring, “Is there a doctor here in Toms River who can cure him?”

Then, on “There’s a Doctor,” we learn that a medical professional explains to Tommy’s parents that his ailments are psychosomatic and in “Go to the Mirror,” they realize the doctor is correct in that they notice his ability to stare at his own reflection.

Another highlight performance ensues when The HillBenders play “Tommy Can You Hear Me?” and invite the audience to sing and clap along as they vocalize in five-part harmony. Accompanying the full choir of voices is Chad “Gravy Boat” Gains who strums as he struts around the stage and then squats as he skillfully plays his dobro.

The HillBenders’ “Tommy” LIVE! at Toms River’s Grunin Center

As the “opry” continues, Tommy’s mother decides to “Smash the Mirror” — an action which removes Tommy’s mental block and enables him to recover his senses. On this countrified-funk offering, The HillBenders rock out as their voices “rise, rise, rise, rise, rise” much to the crowd’s delight!

On “Sensation,” Tommy realizes that he can become a powerful leader singing, “You’ll feel me coming/A new vibration/From afar you’ll see me/I’m a sensation.” Here, mandolinist Nolan Lawrence takes a moment to verbally advance the narrative by revealing that people have come from all over the world to see Tommy including followers like “Sally Simpson.” On this number, Lawrence’s beautiful tenor rings out clear and strong above the picking strings.

Another musical highlight is “I’m Free,” where The HillBenders play rock power chords with a bluegrass flavor. Then, Tommy’s Uncle Ernie invites everyone to “Tommy’s Holiday Camp,” a number which features tight vocals which alternate with advanced country pickin’.

The grand finale is “We’re Not Gonna Take It/See Me Feel Me,” where Tommy retreats inward again. The HillBenders turn this classic rock and roll medley into a foot-stompin’ bluegrass experience by performing The Who’s lyrics, chords, and melodies with their own unique and creative style.

On the reprise of the well-known “See me, feel me” lyric, lush vocal backgrounds support Nolan Lawrence’s controlled tenor vocal along with harmonics coming from Chad “Gravy Boat” Gains’ dobro and nimble picking from Mark Cassidy’s banjo.

The HillBenders’ “Tommy” LIVE! at Toms River’s Grunin Center

Concluding with the famous “Listening to you/I get the music/Gazing at you/I get the heat” lyric, the audience happily claps along to the infectious music, the energy from the stage taking what everyone knows as “British” music and making it sound uniquely “American.”

The audience leaps to its feet for this original interpretation!

For an encore, The HillBenders launch into a series of three original compositions.

First up is “Gettysburg,” with Chad “Gravy Boat” Gains starting off with rhythmic strumming on his dobro and followed by the other instrumentalists as they join in and build the texture of the piece note by note. Percussive, expressive, and authentic, on this original piece The HillBenders take the roots of country music and supplant it with a modern sound. Eventually, the composition builds into a down-home old-fashioned pickin’ tune that compels the audience to participate by excitedly clapping along!

The HillBenders’ “Tommy” LIVE! at Toms River’s Grunin Center

The next original is “Past the Point of Rescue,” a number which features Mark Cassidy picking his banjo as the other musicians strum their acoustic instruments. Cassidy’s lead vocal perfectly harmonizes with Nolan Lawrence’s vocal. Following a segment where fast-paced banjo and dobro echo one another, the piece morphs into a jazz-influenced number and then segues into a Latin number complete with Spanish lyrics. Here, Lawrence wails and sings like a Latin crooner before the composition switches back to a bluegrass feel. An eclectic marriage of musical styles, the number ends with what one band member refers to as mandolinist Lawrence’s vocal performance as an “amazing operatic freakout!”

The HillBenders’ “Tommy” LIVE! at Toms River’s Grunin Center

The last original number is from The HillBenders’ unreleased upcoming recording. Entitled “Go Away,” the group begins by singing in four-part harmony while standing on their toes in time to the music as they play. Inviting audience members to snap their fingers, many begin to sing along and tap their feet to his instantly-likable and very catchy tune.

The group concludes the evening’s performance with an original bluegrass arrangement of The Beatles’ “Oh Darling.” On this piece, the instrumentalists strum, pick, and slap their stringed instruments as Lawrence delivers a powerfully soulful vocal performance.

The HillBenders’ “Tommy” LIVE! at Toms River’s Grunin Center

The audience hoots, hollers, and claps for this talented group of musicians who so capably express their art in such a heartfelt and soulful manner!

At the conclusion of the performance, we make our way out into the Grunin Center lobby where we get an opportunity to interview all five members of The HillBenders.

We start with Chad “Gravy Boat” Graves, the dobro player, and ask him how the group came up with its name, The HillBenders.

The HillBenders’ “Tommy” LIVE! at Toms River’s Grunin Center

Replies Chad, “We wanted to find a term that would identify the band with the area where we’re from — the Ozarks of Missouri. A ‘hellbender’ is a salamander that only lives in the Ozarks, and on the phone, a friend of ours made the suggestion of ‘The HellBenders’ for our group name, but it was misunderstood as ‘The HillBenders’ and it just stuck!”

In inquring about the initial impetus for forming The HillBenders, banjo player Mark Cassidy recalls, “We actually started as a different band — a rock band — but with acoustic instruments. Eventually, that group disbanded and we pulled it all together to create this new bluegrass group.”

We also chat with bassist Gary Rea and ask him whose idea it was to develop a bluegrass version of Tommy. Gary tells us that “a friend — musician and producer Louis Jay Meyers — had the idea for 20 years and was looking for just the right band to do this.”

The HillBenders’ “Tommy” LIVE! at Toms River’s Grunin Center

Claiming “it was a wacky idea” from a concert promoter famous for organizing music showcases in the Southwest, Gary reveals that it was Meyers who ultimately produced The HillBenders’ CD version of The Who’s Tommy: A Bluegrass Opry.

We ask guitarist, Jim Rea — the arranger of The Who’s Tommy: A Bluegrass Opry — what his favorite arrangements are from the musical. Jim replies by mentioning several including “Christmas” and “Cousin Kevin” — specifically noting “the four-part vocal harmonies with the chromatic/dissonant effect” — but also noting how much he enjoys playing songs like “Pinball Wizard” in live settings where audience members consistently react with excitement.

The HillBenders’ “Tommy” LIVE! at Toms River’s Grunin Center

Lastly, we chat with mandolinist Nolan Lawrence and ask him what it’s like to perform here in the Garden State. Responds Nolan, “We have a history here in the Northeast — we have wonderful fans who come to see us whenever we travel here.” Adding, “We love to reconnect with our fans,” Nolan concludes, “They are very appreciative of what we do.”

Following our chat with The HillBenders, we take a moment to talk with several audience members who provide their reactions to tonight’s performance.

Exclaims Jane from Middletown, “The HillBenders can play!”

Clare from Toms River comments, “This show was very nostalgic for me. I’m familiar with Tommy, but I’m really more into bluegrass. I liked the mix of the two. I thought The HillBenders were excellent — their vocals were outstanding and the original songs they did were great!”

Randi and Bob are a couple who traveled from Kingston, NY to the Jersey Shore to hear one of their favorite bands, The HillBenders. Explains Randi, “We’ve been fans — and friends — of The HillBenders since their first CD. The first time we saw them was at a bluegrass festival, and every time since, they’ve just kept getting better and better!”

Randi’s husband, Bob, heartily agrees with his wife, exclaiming, “They do a great job!”

Lastly, we chat with a music fan from Tabernacle, NJ who calls himself “Whiskers,” due to his distinctive long gray beard.

Remarks “Whiskers,” “I was surprised by The HillBenders’ performance of Tommy tonight. I didn’t know what to expect, but I’m glad I came,” before concluding with a smile, “It was amazing!”

The HillBenders’ “Tommy” LIVE! at Toms River’s Grunin Center

For more information about The HillBenders, please go to To learn more about future programs at Toms River, NJ’s Grunin Center of the Arts — including Peter, Paul and Mary’s Peter Yarrow on May 11, Hotel California: A Salute to the Eagles on May 18, and The Great Rock ’n Roll Time Machine on July 28 — please go to

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