Show Review: The HillBenders

Last week I attended another interesting performance at Hall. Originally, I was supposed to see the Honeycutters perform. However, upon my arrival at their scheduled set, I found out that they had switched with their awesome colleagues . I was not disappointed in the least! The HillBenders provided a great show and their fans delivered a ton of worthwhile entertainment as support.

Prior to the show that night, I was having a few drinks at Top Hops Beer Shop with some friends. This worked out perfectly because all I had to do was wander up a couple of blocks and was at Rockwood for some great music. Entering the space, at stage two, I was immediately shocked with the mix of the crowd. Most of the fans consisted of folks in their 50s who were already heavily into their drinks. There were a few young people in the crowd, but I had a feeling that they were patiently waiting for the other bands to perform that night. Regardless, the crowd was quite large and loud which had everybody riled up.

Eventually, the musicians made their way to the stage. The HillBenders are a rather descriptive looking group. In fact, the members; Chad ‘Gravyboat’ Graves (dobro), Gary Rea (bass), Jim Rea (guitar), Mark Cassidy (banjo) and Nolan Lawrence (mandolin) would have made Johnny Cash proud. Their country rockabilly swag unveiled their true colors. Chad was a mix of Elvis and Johnny reborn that rocked some impressive sideburns. He was a maniac on the stage. Both Chad and Jim would provide elaborate radio-style anecdotes to some of their songs before and after each one was performed. They would talk so fast but with a specific twang in their voices that you could not help but be curious at what information they were going about to share. Mark was the hipster of the group who silently yet confidentially mastered the magic of the banjo. Gary, with the upright bass, was smack dab in the middle providing the heart and soul of the music as the night wore on. Last, but certainly not least, was Nolan who commanded the mandolin and had an extremely powerful voice that captivated us all. There was no drummer, which was a nice change from what I usually hear.

The HillBenders wasted no time at all going through a rather detailed sound check that followed with an instantaneous introduction into their bluegrass sensation. They started off slow, easing us in. Almost instantly, they unleashed a sudden bounce and a strong string feel. There was no singing in the beginning. They kept the introduction instrumental. Mark’s banjo playing was prevailing and vibrant. At times the band was lazily mastering their craft, as if they were still on the front porch playing for the hell of it. All the harmonies flowed between the five members with a sighing of musical satisfaction coming through. Each guy was in his own moment flexing his musical muscles. Despite their singular jiffies, The HillBenders were a well-tuned machine.

Even though the lighting in Rockwood was darker than usual, The HillBenders were the ones who provided the light. Fans were brash and happy as they were enjoying the music. Throughout the show there were instances of silence, as the crew attempted to further grasp the crowd. With those pauses, the band provided a lingering river flow of music. Sometimes the pauses worked, other times the pauses were due to a guitar solo that was drowned out by the ceaseless clamor of the venue. After the pauses ended and the music sprung back up, that is when the foot stomping began. Both the band and the audience were stomping their feet as the tempo increased. I felt bad for the sound guy, who was probably working his butt off amidst the rambunctious noise. At one point during the stomping, Jim started doing a little dance that reminded me of Dave Matthews during a live show. His feet were swinging all over and he was red in the face with passion. When the men did take a song break, they immediately took a sip of their beers, their life force of the night. Most of the songs flew into the other in a constant current of music. I had a feeling they were rushed for time.

The HillBenders played some intense bluegrass folk-rock. Chad and Jim seemed to be the ones who provided the musical fire of the stage. Both were totally into it. Chad’s hair would flail everywhere as he began to drip with sweat while Jim would be affectionately strumming his guitar with his face glowing. At times, they even took a soulful bluegrass twist, as Nolan astonished us with his belching voice and elegant hand movements. Fans were obvious in the audience at this point as they began to sing proudly along with the group. The audience was their chorus.

Fans were full of nerdy country people that were enjoying every second. Couples began dancing together with grins on their faces. I was actually hoping some line dancing would start. The HillBenders even did a rendition of Pinball Wizard by The Who, which was amazing as a bluegrass version. Probably the best ending of the night was my complete fascination with a funny guy in the audience who had no rhythm. He was captivated by the band and knew them well. Sadly, with each strum of the guitar that he was desperately trying to reenact, he was always a beat too late. The same went for his lip-syncing of the lyrics as well. I was deeply entertained.

The show ended with the sound guy cutting the set short in preparation for the next group to come on. Oh boy, that was a rough ending, the crowd was pissed and let the sound guy hear their anger. Happily, The HillBenders kept their cool and finished with grace and respect. They are wildly compelling and would be perfect for a barnyard celebration on the 4th of July. Catch them on tour and be amazed!




Jam On.


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