There are certain hard realities that are inescapable, and rock ’n’ roll offers no exceptions: The Beatles will never reunite. The chances of Pink Floyd or Led Zeppelin getting back together appear slim to none. Sadly, no one will ever again hear Tom Petty defiantly declare he won’t back down or that he’s expecting to fly.
While fans will forever lament those losses, the Black Jacket Symphony provides its own alternatives.
For the past nine years, it’s offered audiences the chance to hear classic albums such as “A Night at the Opera,” “Abbey Road,” “Led Zeppelin IV,” “Dark Side of the Moon” and other musical milestones of the past 50 years performed in their entirety via note-for-note replications of the original studio recordings.
Produced under the watchful eyes — and ears — of its founder, J. Willoughby and his partner and technical director Jason Rogoff, several groups of musicians travel throughout the country under the Black Jacket Symphony banner, each of them dedicated to replicating a specific classic album.
“We don’t consider ourselves to be tribute bands,” Willoughby said, speaking on the phone from his home base in Birmingham, Ala. “The musicians don’t dress up in costume or sign autographs after the show as Paul McCartney or whoever they attempt to portray. That’s not what we do. It’s not that we have a problem with tribute bands, per se; in fact, I’ve been to see several shows of that kind. But it’s not what we do.”
The difference, Willoughby said, is that performances by Black Jacket Symphony — which returns to East Tennessee for a Friday night show at The Tennessee Theatre in downtown Knoxville — are solely about the music, not about the musicians. That’s one reason their performances eschew any attempt at jamming or any opting for spontaneity when they’re replicating the records.
Obsessively devoted to rock ’n’ roll from early on (“Hearing the Beatles for the first time was an epiphany,” Willoughby said), he and Rogoff intently analyze every album they intend to cover in order to illuminate every note and nuance to ensure a flawless reproduction. Although they don’t offer open auditions, there is a stable of musicians who are chosen because they are specifically acclimated for the material.
Although he’s a musician himself, Willoughby said he no longer performs with any of his ensembles. Instead, he oversees Black Jacket Symphony operations, while Rogoff tends to the sound and special effects. The productions include lighting and period film clips that are used to add extra elements to the performances.
Asked the advantage of seeing Black Jacket Symphony perform these pieces rather than simply listening to the original albums as they were recorded, Willoughby said he has an easy answer.
“Why do people go to a classical concert and listen to a Mozart symphony rather than putting on a recording? It’s because there’s something special that comes with watching musicians live and on stage performing the music in front of you,” he said. “Ask anyone who has ever been to a classical concert, and they’ll tell you the same thing.”
In fact, the parallels to classical music performances don’t end there. The name, “Black Jacket Symphony,” was chosen to reflect the sophisticated approach that makes their presentations appear so rare and revered. While there’s no dressing up in dinner jackets, tuxedos or other formal wear, the performers do take their jobs seriously and dutifully devote themselves to presenting the albums with reverence and respect.
Willoughby estimates that the various Black Jacket Symphony ensembles have performed nearly 40 albums over the course of their collective careers. During the remaining months of 2018 alone, they’ll focus on seven classic recordings in particular — the Beatles’ “Abbey Road,” Queen’s “A Night at the Opera,” “Damn the Torpedoes” from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon,” Journey’s “ESC4P3,” “Led Zeppelin IV,” “Let It Bleed” by the Rolling Stones and AC/DC’s “Back in Black.”
The Black Jack Symphony has visited Knoxville a number of times over the years, and Willoughby said it’s little wonder. “Knoxville is a great rock ‘n’ roll town,” he said. “Audiences have been very enthusiastic every time we’re there.”
Every album has its challenges, Willoughby said. However of them all, the Beatles “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” is the most difficult to do.
“There was an amazing amount of instrumentation involved in that effort,” he said.
One might wonder if any of the artists that Black Jacket Symphony has covered has ever critiqued one of their shows?
“Not yet,” Willoughby replied. “However I am waiting for Sir Paul McCartney to call.”