Who exactly are the Black Jacket Symphony? Well, they are a Birmingham Ala. band led by music director J. Willoughby. They have a cadre of musicians that rotate into and out of the band, depending on which album or albums or groups they are currently on tour doing hommages to. So, for example, you’ll need some female voices to do Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, but a very different set of voices to do the Rolling Stones Some Girls. You get the picture.
The band got started in 2009 when Willoughby came up with the notion that classic rock is my generation’s classical music and it deserves the kind of detailed care and attention that a Mozart symphony would require. Hence, the attempt to create note for note, sound for sound, guitar lick for guitar lick the way a classic album sounded. Thus far, they have about 15 such albums mastered along with a host of greatest hits of the same bands as well. Currently they are playing Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon, Prince’s Purple Rain, and the Beatles Abbey Road on tour. Sometimes they play with a local symphony orchestra or players from said orchestra as well, depending on the album. When they came to Lexington Friday January 25th they borrowed a few string players presumably from U.K. for Eleanor Rigby and Yesterday.
So what did I think? First of all, these folks are real musicians and they probably should not be called a tribute band. They are mostly middle aged folks who love classic rock. They do not try to reproduce the original look or even accents of the original artists, but they do do a note for note performance of the album (in this case Abbey Road– the last album the Beatles recorded together) trying to reproduce on stage what you hear on the record.
I am very picky about all this, being a lover of classic rock, and I felt they did an excellent job of reproduction of the sound of the original lp. Yes, there were a few gaffs, a few sound problems, a flub of the lyrics on Eleanor Rigby at one point, but overall it was excellent. It was also LOUD. The Lexington Opera House was filled up with sound. And the sold out crowd was singing right along with them.
And of course therein lies both the danger and the possibilities of such a faithful performance. Many if not most of the crowd know these songs by heart, and can sing every line. If you mess up…. they all know it. It’s not like a novice going to his first performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. It’s like playing before a crowd of knowledgeable music lovers. Since Willougby is the creator of this touring company, and its central fixture a bit more can be said about him.
First of all, he looks a bit like John Lennon with the same acquiline nose, and the same nasal accent. He was perfect for singing Come Together or Revolution. The surprise was that he could do equally well taking the lead on a McCartney number like Back in the USSR. Interestingly, even though Abbey Road was the first album the band mastered (in 2009), they still had and occasionally looked at the sheet music when needed. Like I said, these folks are real musicians, not posers like some current so-called artists who can neither read a note of music nor can they really sing, but they are excellent at saying YO!
All Willoughby really lacked was some colored granny glasses when he sang Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds for the second half of the show. There were three other excellent voices in the band as well. The drummer frankly was better at being Ringo than Ringo (both as a drummer and as a singer of Octopus’s Garden etc.).
Since we know exactly what went down in the first half of the concert, I will concentrate here on the second half, which was billed as some of the Beatles Greatest Hits. As it turned out, that was a yes and no proposition. Don’t Bring Me Down was the B side of Help, and Dear Prudence an album cut from the White Album. Fixing a Hole was a McCartney tune from Sgt. Peppers. These were not top ten Billboard hits. They were just songs the band enjoys playing. On the other hand we did get Hey Jude, Revolution, Back in the USSR, Yesterday, Eleanor Rigby, and A Hard Day’s Night. And that brings up another point.
There was exactly one song from 1964 ( A Hard Days Night), and one song from the Help Album. The whole rest of the concert was from albums beginning with say Revolver and going forward. But of course the Beatles were a very different band by Rubber Soul and Revolver, and the White Album and Sgt. Peppers, and Abbey Road, than they were when they did Meet the Beatles.
I personally would have liked to hear some cuts from Beatles 65– like the first feedback song– “I Feel Fine” or even better the beautiful “I’ll Be Back (Again)” with terrific harmonies. But you can’t have everything, and this night was about two hours of excellent music, generally well played and sung, and a good time was had by all. Did they recreate the magic I still remember from watching the Fab Four play She Loves You (yeah, yeah, yeah) and ‘I Want to Hold your Hand’ on Ed Sullivan’s show in 1964 when I had just turned into a teenager? No. Did they bring a lot of smiles to my face and make me sing? Yes.
The audience ranged from 20 something (only a few) to 70 something (a bunch), and everywhere in between. I defy you to find such a diverse multi-generational audience at another concert that doesn’t involve classic rock. Parents accompanying kids to a Taylor Swift or Justin Bieber concert but not really into the music doesn’t count.
Perhaps Mr. Willoughby is right. Perhaps classic rock is the classical music of our generation… and it is time we gave it its due. I’m looking forward to their next performance in Lexington when I am in town. I’m hoping for either Hotel California by the Eagles (which they also do), or the Doors first album, or Pink Floyd’s classic, Dark Side of the Moon. In short, I like these Men in Black, better than the movies of the same name.
You can find much more from these guys including video clips at www.blackjacketsymphony.com.