IT’S GOTTEN TO the stage that preposterousness in popular music is almost a default position. No longer are we shocked by some guy in makeup and a feather boa with a boa constrictor, or an alcoholic Satanist biting the head off a dove. No, to be authentically preposterous, you might pass muster by commissioning an enclave of Tibetan monks to chant ‘Stairway To Heaven’ backwards, accompanied by a lonely goatherd. Or perhaps you’d make for a brief, incendiary YouTube sensation by getting some Mongolian throat singers to duet with a Romanian choir whose only instrument was a type of kazoo that uses the oesophagus of a rare vampire bat on an extended mix of ‘Royals’.
Okay, you get the message. Back to the default setting, then. The HillBenders are a bluegrass group from Springfield, Missouri, who were somehow cajoled by producer Louis Jay Meyers to record their version of The Who’s classic rock opera, bluegrass style. I don’t know what the guy was thinking, or what kind of wacky weed he’d been smoking, but the idea, which really should have gone no further than a drunken/stoned conversation, is actually a real thing – a 75-minute exact copy of the original that the group call “a Bluegrass Opry”.
Now, I listened to the whole thing, much against my better instincts, and I can report that it’s very competent. I never much liked Roger Daltry’s voice, which was never a match for his bulging neck muscles, but the HillBenders’ singer does a decent job of it, as do the musicians. Nearly everything, in fact, is where it should be in this pretty good facsimile of the most famous rock opera (except for a few missing power chords, or course) and at times, I even forgot that it was being performed by a bunch of guys who chew straw.
But during the whole thing, something was nagging me. The nag can be summed up in three succinct words: WHY DO IT? Apart from the nanosecond in which you snigger with delight that this lofty piece of over-conceptualised junk (that’s The Who’s Tommy I’m talking about) could be lampooned by a bluegrass group, there’s nothing whatsoever to be gained by listening to it. Perhaps if somehow The HillBenders’ rendition had exposed the flakiness of the original rock opera, and musically satirized it so that we could have a few sniggers between ‘movements’, then it may have almost justified itself. But it’s as boring and grey and overrated as the original album. And for those who think The Who’s version is a masterpiece, I still can’t see why you’d bother, because it doesn’t reveal any unforeseen greatness by substituting banjos for guitars.
I’ve always loved novelty in popular music, but really, The HillBenders’ respectful copy of the 1969 rock opera, which does nothing more than decontextualise it, leaves you with nothing more than a slight aftertaste of GM corn. GARY STEEL
Music = 2.5/5
Sound = 3/5