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Bluegrass band energized small audience

The+HillBenders+performed+%22Tommy%3A+A+Bluegrass+Opry%22+at+the+Marcus+Center+in+front+of+an+energized+and+engaged+crowd.+
The HillBenders performed

The HillBenders performed "Tommy: A Bluegrass Opry" at the Marcus Center in front of an energized and engaged crowd.

Photo by Maranie Staab

Photo by Maranie Staab

The HillBenders performed "Tommy: A Bluegrass Opry" at the Marcus Center in front of an energized and engaged crowd.

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47 years ago, renowned songwriter and guitarist Pete Townshend, from British rock group The Who, saw his creative dream of a rock opera come true when the band released “Tommy.” The album changed the trajectory of The Who’s music and helped set the tone for what later became classic rock. In 2015, the rock opera once again proved revolutionary, this time for a small-town bluegrass group.

The HillBenders, a five-man band from Springfield, Mo., released a bluegrass reimagination of “Tommy” in early 2015. The idea, originally conceived by SXSW co-founder Louis Jay Meyers, became a reality just four months after he proposed the project to the band’s mandolin player, Nolan Lawrence.

Since the release, the band has toured in the U.K., Australia and across the U.S.

On Nov. 9, the HillBenders performed at Vogel Hall, part of the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts.

Before the band took the stage, the crowd buzzed with excitement. A broad spectrum of people filed into the audience: from the man who travelled across the country, bouncing on the balls of his feet in anticipation for the show to start, to the mother with her three young children sitting a few rows back.

Despite a small turn-out – nearly two-thirds of the theater was empty – the energy was high. When the band filed on stage, the cheers and applause were so loud and full of enthusiasm that it felt like every seat in the house was filled.

The band interacted with the crowd in a way that made it feel comfortable and intimate, like having a jam session in a friend’s basement instead of watching a big lights-camera-action-style show.

Unlike most concerts, the audience remained in their seats and simply listened. Throughout the show, only two or three people pulled out their phones to record a song. There was some singing and cheering that comes along with live performances, but mostly the audience just intently listened and enjoyed the uplifting and lively music.

The HillBenders started with a half dozen songs. Some of them were their own, but others were covers of classic bluegrass and country songs. Then, they transitioned into a full run-through of “Tommy.”

The first set of songs was packed with energy and audience members sat in quiet awe of the beauty of bluegrass. The niche genre proved well-loved by most of the audience.

As they paired off for duets and stood out for solos, the chemistry between the men on stage and the passion they shared for their music was evident. The band beamed when the crowd cheered after each awe-inspiring performance.

While each band member took a crack at singing a song or two, Nolan Lawrence lead the majority of the singing with theatrical facial expressions and extraordinary vocal range.

While the audience was blown away by the first set, they were no less impressed by the rock-opera-turned-bluegrass-opry. “Tommy” simply had a different ambience from the opening performance.

By the end of the show, the audience was on their feet, chanting for an encore. The men happily obliged with a jubilant performance of “I Can See for Miles and Miles.”

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