For nearly 25 years, Damon Johnson has been a fixture on the Birmingham music scene and beyond. In addition to his time with Split The Dark, Brother Cane, Slave To The System and Whiskey Falls, the guitarist/vocalist has held a sideman slot with John Waite and is now a member of Alice Cooper’s band. When he’s not on the road with Cooper, Johnson fronts The Black Jacket Symphony, a veteran ensemble of local and regional musicians that performs rock’s classic albums in their entirety. With past shows spotlighting Abbey Road, Who’s Next, Dark Side Of The Moon, Led Zeppelin IV and Let It Bleed, the band has now turned its focus to AC/DC’s Back In Black. I mention to Johnson that, fortunately for his band and its devoted following, there is still a deep well of albums to be mined.
“It was absolutely a part of the very first conversation that (fellow band member) J. Willoughby and I had,” Johnson recalls, speaking by phone. “I respectfully give that guy credit for having this idea about The Black Jacket Symphony. As we talked about it, that was in the first discussion, that we’ve got a limitless pool of great material to draw from. J. and I come from this collective of Birmingham musicians, and it’s always been about the music. Even our original bands were never ones that were overly concerned about image and setting our hair on fire to get attention. For us to be as passionate about classic rock as we are, [The Black Jacket Symphony] is just a great idea, and the outpouring of support that Birmingham has shown us just reinforces how we felt at the outset.”
On Friday, December 17, and Saturday, December 18, The Black Jacket Symphony will perform Back In Black at Workplay. Showtime for both performances is 9 p.m. Though all of the band’s members are seasoned professionals, I ask Johnson if interpreting the—albeit familiar—material in painstaking detail presents its challenges.
“Absolutely—we talk about it this on a regular basis and we had this same discussion last night,” Johnson offers. “Of all the albums we’ve done, (bassist) Jay (Johnson) says, ‘Back In Black is definitely in Damon’s wheelhouse.’ I learned almost every song on that record when I was a teenager living on a farm in north Alabama. I’ve played them through the years, but once you start tackling this album to perform in The Black Jacket Symphony, you put on a different hat and a different microscope. What I realized is that I’ve been playing most of these songs on the wrong place on the (guitar) neck. I’ve probably listened to this record 200 times in the past six weeks, and that’s no exaggeration. When we open the show with the lead track, which is ‘Hell’s Bells,’ and we play that opening guitar figure, it’s exactly the way Angus and Malcolm Young played it when they recorded it in the studio. We play it with the same guitar tone and same tempo, and we get goose bumps, and we know the audience is going to get goose bumps.”
Though The Black Jacket Symphony’s nucleus has remained stable, the band has a revolving cast of players, as well. Johnson says that the band’s future plans and diverse projects demand that a number of musicians be involved.
“It’s never been the same guys on any different album,” Johnson explains. “It’s been our good fortune that we’ve stumbled on a core group of guys that have been fairly consistent, particularly in our rhythm section. We’ve been fortunate to have Mark Lanter on drums and Jay Johnson on bass, with the exception of a couple of performances when our friend Ed Isbell played bass. The grand master plan is for us to grow this to where we could take it on the road and go out and try to build some other markets and even get into some theatres and casinos. In the event we can get it off the ground like that, we’re going to need different players at every instrument. When you get into these classic albums, there’s a big difference in the vocal sounds from Pink Floyd to The Who to The Beatles to Zeppelin to AC/DC. It’s been fulfilling to have these great players come to us with so much enthusiasm, and they do such an amazing job of doing their homework and preparing for this thing.”
Anyone that has attended a Black Jacket Symphony show knows that no detail goes unnoticed. Onstage, the group goes to whatever lengths necessary to recreate a given album in its truest form.
“Those unique details, like the violin part in (The Who’s) ‘Baba O’Riley,’ that’s what makes the entertainment value that much better for the consumer that’s coming to the show,” Johnson says. “We’ve all seen bands in bars that play these various songs. You can pull up some patch on a digital keyboard that’ll get it close, but to do (Led Zeppelin’s) ‘Kashmir’ and have a cello and violin onstage along with two guitars – it’s the same instrumentation Led Zeppelin used when they recorded that song. We know that if we continue to make that kind of commitment and try to nail it as close to the album as possible, the fans are going to love it every time. People even make amazing comments to us like, ‘Whatever record you guys do, we’re coming. It could be a Culture Club record and we’re coming because we know you guys are going to nail it.’”
But while The Black Jacket Symphony’s mission is to interpret rock’s timeless music in its closest form, Johnson has also enjoyed the opportunity to reunite and perform with his old friends.
“That’s been a bonus for sure,” he says. “When I came to Birmingham in ’86, that was a magical time for me. That was when I first met Marc Phillips, who gave me a job in Split The Dark. I also met Dannie and Vannie Warren and all the Telluride guys. All of a sudden, I’m onstage with all of these same cats and we’re dissecting this record that is like the Bible to us and we’re having so much fun. It’s like the clock has been rolled back and it’s been so fulfilling to reconnect with all of these guys and it’s been a great excuse to get together.”
Brent Thompson writes about popular music for Birmingham Weekly. Send your comments to email@example.com.