The HillBenders Perform “Tommy” In Pasadena At The Levitt Pavilion

“Tommy: A Bluegrass Opry”

Sometimes the best entertainment is free.

“Tommy” was not an immediate smash, but it was in my house. It was led by the exquisite single “Pinball Wizard” during the winter of ’69, which got little airplay and was not worth buying as a single since you knew the double LP was coming, and in the spring, it did!

Not sure it’s the same experience anymore. First you had to drive to the store. After you knew the album was coming. This was before the rock press matured, you depended upon the radio, and free-form had invaded the New York market, I drove with my newly-acquired license to E.J. Korvette to buy the double LP.

And we treated them like gold. At least I did. Sure, packages would get scuffed as time went by, there’d be wear and tear, but when you got home they were still brand new and you broke the shrinkwrap and opened them so gently, removing the LPs by the label and edge only, dropping them on the turntable and waiting for…

Those first notes you’d never heard before.

Kinda liked dropping the needle on “Hotel California” the day it was released, the only thing that was on the airwaves was “New Kid In Town,” I had a brand new stereo with JBL L100’s and I dropped the needle on my direct drive Panasonic and…WOW!

Kinda like buying “Band On The Run” when all you knew was “Helen Wheels.”

In the ensuing weeks FM played elements of “Tommy,” but I was still part of a very small club, which over time grew bigger, to tell you the truth what really blew it up was the “Woodstock” movie the following spring, suddenly everybody was involved, SEE ME, FEEL ME, TOUCH ME, HEAL ME!

But there was not another hit on “Tommy,” hell, in America the Who’s only real hit had been mild, with “I Can See For Miles,” and most people still weren’t tuned into FM, if they even had a radio that could receive that band, so I dug deeply into the rock opera and told everybody about it, had my mother send the album to Chicago so I could turn the frat rats in the basement on to it as we resided upstairs and they smoked dope downstairs.

And at this point I’d been to the opera, that’s the luxury of living so close to NYC, the school takes you, the best one was “Carmen,” my mother had a policy, when it came to the arts there was an unlimited budget, and just like those productions in Manhattan, “Tommy” began with an overture, and when the HillBenders blew into the “Overture” Friday night, tears came to my eyes.

It was better than seeing Roger and Pete, they’re going through the motions, I’m just gonna be reminded of what was, seeing them with Moon and Entwistle do it straight through at the Fillmore, it would be nostalgic, it would be a bit creepy, but this bluegrass version…IT WAS FULLY ALIVE!

None of the HillBenders were alive when “Tommy” first came out. They were playing classic music, with a twist.

Oh, what a long strange trip it’s been. Not only to fans of the Dead, but to those of us who lived through the classic rock era, who saw the pop acts wiped off the map by the Beatles, who sparked the free-format era, the concept album concept, and then the explosion of FM leading to corporate rock and then MTV to…


I don’t know where here is. All I know is it won’t be fully free of constraints until the baby boomers pass the torch, which they’re loath to do. They hate electronic music, they hate rap, they hate everything the streamers care for. But you can’t hold back the future, and we’re getting somewhere great.

But I’m not sure it’ll be as great as where we once were.

On paper, “Tommy” is a stupid concept. But, like the initial live performances of “Quadrophenia,” the HillBenders explained it. And it kind of made more sense.

But to those of us who were there, we’d transcended the story, we knew the music by heart, even if we rarely played it, it’s in our DNA.

And these free shows are dominated by geezers and grazers, people out on a lark, getting out of the house on the hottest night of the year, it could be anything on stage, but to gain their attention…

You have to know how to play, to perform, your material’s got to win.

And seeing these pickers in action, you were wowed.

But they were playing some of the best material of all time.

I never checked my phone. And I do that at shows of today’s greats.

All I could do was sit there, nod my head, sing along at times, and marvel at where I once was and how I got here. Being nowhere in the suburbs and making it to L.A., climbing the ladder, going somewhere, the movie of my life unfolded in my brain. Since this was a new band playing the music with the aforementioned twist I didn’t have to compare it to what once was, I didn’t have to feel old, but then the memories came flooding back, of not only seeing the Who, but where I was when I was listening, memories that are so deeply buried some of them haven’t resurfaced since the sixties.

Is classic rock the new classical music?

It’s amazing how many bands have fallen by the wayside. Has anybody played a Seatrain album recently?

But then there’s stuff that sustains.

Other stuff that’s rarely played but people know.

And when you hear it you marvel at the creativity embodied, the great leap forward artistically, the Who went from a middling band to the absolute bleeding edge, they only got bigger from there, one can argue “Who’s Next” was superior, many people believe “Live At Leeds” is the best live LP extant. And you wonder how Pete came up with this stuff.

And the HillBenders worked through songs we know by heart, the transition from the “Overture” to “Captain Walker,” they played “Pinball Wizard” with as dramatic a transition as the original, do you remember listening on headphones waiting for the explosion to arrive in the other ear, and there were appearances by Uncle Ernie and Sally Simpson and then…

Welcome to the camp
I guess you all know why we’re here

Actually, we didn’t. We were just going about our business, going to school, being on the swim team, and then the whole world went topsy-turvy, the sixties truly arrived, that’s what that first installment of the Grateful Dead movie depicts so well, suddenly the establishment was done and the hippies took over. And leading the charge was MUSIC!

We weren’t gonna take the old crap anymore. The youth were not divided, we were all on the same page, gaining strength all the time.

We got the music.

We felt the heat.

We millions saw the glory.

We got opinions.

We got the story from rock acts like the Who.

And what we wanted most was to be seen, to be felt, to be touched, the music healed us.

And when “We’re Not Gonna Take It” faded into the ether there was only one option…


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