Band: Black Jacket Symphony performs Journey’s “Escape”
Date: Saturday, Jan. 9, with doors at 7 p.m.
Venue: Saenger Theatre, 6 S. Joachim St., www.mobilesaenger.com
Tickets: $22-$27, available through
Ticketmaster and Saenger box office
Birmingham’s Black Jacket Symphony could be considered an epic tribute band. But those who have seen the group perform know otherwise.
Black Jacket Symphony has established a reputation for performing some of rock’s greatest albums with uncanny, pristine accuracy. Its audiences have marveled at its live performances of albums ranging from Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” to Nirvana’s “Nevermind.”
Black Jacket Symphony will return to the “Jewel on Joachim” this Saturday to perform Journey’s classic album “Escape,” which spawned such hits as “Open Arms,” “Who’s Crying Now” and “Don’t Stop Believing.” Journey’s original front man, Steve Perry, is known for his trademark alto vocals. For its performance in Mobile, Black Jacket Symphony has recruited Nashville vocalist Chris Mitchell to provide a proper rendition of Perry’s work on “Escape.”
As with all the albums Black Jacket Symphony recreates, “Escape” meets the same criteria sought by core members/business partners J. Willoughby and Jason Rogoff. According to Willoughby, the albums they choose are considered modern-day symphonies. Willoughby considers the advent of digital music as a return to the early days of rock ‘n’ roll. Millennial albums are seen as collections of singles and not as complete works that should be enjoyed as a whole in a single hearing.
Willoughby sees the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s as a “sweet spot” for albums that were more powerful when enjoyed in their entirety, much like a classical symphony. This ideology was shaped by Willoughby’s view of The Beatles’ “Abbey Road,” the first album Black Jacket Symphony ever covered.
Willoughby likens the modern-day appreciation for “Abbey Road” to the enduring appreciation for a classic symphonic piece written by composers such as Mozart or Wagner. Instead of viewing Black Jacket Symphony as a basic tribute band, Willoughby sees the project as a celebration of the symphonic quality of rock ‘n’ roll’s greatest efforts.
“When we say ‘Black Jacket Symphony,’ people think we’re doing a symphonic rendition,” Willoughby said. “We’re playing it exactly as you heard it on the record. Back in the day, symphonies were written for [symphony orchestras]. These classic albums were written for rock bands.”
The symphonic quality is not the only factor considered in choosing an album to perform. Willoughby said they also like to choose an album that “made a difference” or “spoke to its time.” He cites bands such as The Beatles’ innovating music with numerous releases. Willoughby said he sees bands such as Fleetwood Mac and The Eagles as ambassadors of the ‘70s West Coast sound. Journey’s “Escape” album meets those standards.
“Journey owned the ‘80s,” Willoughby said. “It’s a huge record that had to be done. It fits every criteria that we do. It’s got huge power ballads. A lot of couples met with these songs and fell in love to them. Steve Perry was one of the best singers in rock history.”
Once an album has been selected, the duo puts a lot of work and planning into preparing the performance. First, a recruitment process begins. Finding talent for each project has not been a problem for the duo. Some musicians might be chosen to perform one album, and others might be chosen to perform multiple albums.
The music dictates who will perform. With such diversity in rock ‘n’ roll, some musicians might be better suited to perform the Allman Brothers Band’s “Eat a Peach” than, say, Prince’s “Purple Rain.”
“For some of these albums, you’re waiting for the right singer and right guitar player,” Willoughby said. “We don’t want to do it unless we have the right personnel.”
Luckily Willoughby spent 10 years as a songwriter in Nashville. The connections he made in The Music City have resulted in access to a wealth of musical talent. From session artists to music professors, he maintains a large network. If he doesn’t already know someone, word of mouth usually brings someone to his attention. Willoughby said the best musician is one who can both sing and play.
As for how long it takes to put a show together, Willoughby said it depends on the album. Once the talent has been recruited, the musicians are assigned individual homework. Most have other jobs and gigs, and are obligated to practice their parts of the selected album solo. By the time they make it to live rehearsals, the recruits are sufficiently well-versed in the material.
Black Jacket Symphony has no limits to the albums they’re willing to cover, but are known for a commitment to accuracy. From vocals to eclectic instrumentation, no detail is ignored.
As far as Willoughby’s favorite album the group has covered thus far, he said he has many, but “Abbey Road” still holds a special place in his heart. Its performance of Led Zeppelin’s “Houses of the Holy” was also memorable, Willoughby said, and he describes the band’s presentation of “Dark Side of the Moon” as chill inducing.
Ultimately, the group’s critical analysis of these classic works of rock has been both positive and negative.
“You get into doing this and dig in as much as we have to,” Willoughby said. “Sometimes, you get a new appreciation of some of these artists. Sometimes, it’s a little depreciation, but that doesn’t happen very often.”
As far as future plans for the Symphony, Willoughby and Rogoff are pleased with the band’s current status. Limiting its performances to the Southeast has been satisfactory and there are no plans to take their show nationwide. However, the group does plan to explore “new markets.” With so many classic albums having the symphonic quality Willoughby and Rogoff love, this band’s reputation can only grow with each performance.