Like many things in popular music, the Black Jacket Symphony would not exist if it weren’t for The Beatles.
The group’s founder, J. Willoughby, grew up listening to the Fab Four. He loved practically every song, but he had a musical epiphany when he listened to one of the band’s groundbreaking works from start to finish.
“‘Sgt. Pepper’s (Lonely Hearts Club Band)’ was the one that said, ‘Here it is,’” Willoughby said. “It was the one that said, ‘Albums. ... It’s not just throwaway pop music. This is art.’”
Willoughby went on to attend Belmont University in Nashville, and he stayed in Music City as a singer-songwriter who signed an EMI publishing deal, was signed to Capital Records “for a minute or two” and worked in morning radio for a few years. He had played in his fair share of cover bands in the area, but in 2009 — on the eve of the 40th anniversary of The Beatles’ classic album “Abbey Road” — Willoughby contacted some players, and the inaugural performance of the Black Jacket Symphony allowed him to form a different kind of cover band with much bigger ambitions.
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“It really did occur to me that these albums, this little sweet spot of these artists performing albums as a whole, are the symphonies of our generation,” he said.
Albums. ... It’s not just throwaway pop music. This is art.
J. Willoughby, Black Jacket Symphony founder
Willoughby has since used his connections to skilled musicians and singers, and his impeccable attention to detail, to perform a huge variety of classic albums from iconic artists from the 1960s to the early ’90s live on tour for audiences across the country, including music by Pink Floyd, Prince, Michael Jackson, Led Zeppelin, The Eagles and The Rolling Stones. Unlike a typical cover band playing a serviceable version of the most well-known tracks from some of these bands, the Black Jacket Symphony will use as many players as necessary to faithfully perform these artists’ best studio recordings “note for note and sound for sound.”
“The noticeable difference is we will do whatever it takes to do whatever you hear on an album presented in a live setting,” he said.
On its current tour, the Black Jacket Symphony will tackle yet another classic album Saturday, when it performs Fleetwood Mac’s 1977 smash “Rumours” for two performances at the Lexington Opera House.
Willoughby said whether it’s Pink Floyd’s “The Dark Side of the Moon” or Nirvana’s “Nevermind,” performing every album accurately has its musical challenges, and “Rumours” is no different. In this case, the seven musicians have had to laboriously rehearse and tweak to get just the right guitar sounds, capture the subtle sonic eccentricities of “The Chain” or nail the unforgettable harmonies and pained lyrics fans of this album know by heart.
“When you get down to it, it’s all about the vocals, which is all about homework,” Willoughby said.
After the performance of “Rumours,” the Black Jacket Symphony will return to the stage to perform some of Fleetwood Mac’s other hits to close things out. As the group adds albums to its arsenal and attendance grows, Willoughby said, he thinks it’s a good sign that in an age when people digitally stream play lists of singles, he gets to see on an almost nightly basis that the album as a format and these albums in particular continue to resonate.
“We’ve been so fortunate hitting this little niche that we have,” he said. “It does give me hope that people are still listening to this. And I think people are realizing that this is the classical music of this generation. This stuff is going to live a lot longer than some of the stuff that’s coming out now.”
Blake Hannon: firstname.lastname@example.org.