Greatest hits of Billy Joel and Elton John, ‘Back to Back’ with MSO

Featured vocalist Jean Meilleur and pianist John Regan

Billy Joel and Elton John: Each awesome in his own right.

Their music together in a single evening: Awesome squared.

Hit songs from the two in the hands and instruments of featured performers and a live symphony orchestra: Fourfold fantastic!

Such exponentially irresistible pop music fun comes courtesy of Jeans ’n Classics’ October 21 show with the Mississippi Symphony Orchestra, bringing their “Back to Back: The Music of Elton John & Billy Joel” to the Thalia Mara Hall stage in Jackson.

“Back to Back” nods to the pop icons’ “Face to Face” tours that started in 1994. “The two just work together,” says Jeans ’n Classics founder/arranger/guitarist Peter Brennan.

The broad appeal sweeps from symphony lovers to pop rock diehards, from teens to grandmas and grandpas, and everyone in-between and within earshot. Even listeners who fall solidly into the Elton John or the Billy Joel fan camp can quickly find themselves won over by the concert’s other half.

That’s what happened to MSO Conductor and Music Director Crafton Beck, when he led this Jeans ’n Classics concert with the Lima Symphony Orchestra in Ohio some years back. An avowed Elton John fan, going in, he had a more expansive view at the other end. “I realized I loved every Billy Joel song! And, I knew the words to every one,” he recalls. “This is an amazing lineup of songs.”

Jeans ’n Classics specializes in this hybrid band/orchestra format, that interprets legendary rock and pop music with signature flair and front-and-center orchestral engagement. Featured vocalist Jean Meilleur and pianist John Regan with backup singers and the Jeans ’n Classics band join MSO players to breathe new musical verve into beloved chart toppers.

Listeners can get addicted to all that color and movement in songs that are so special from the start. Piano plus violins, brass punctuating the air — it’s nothing short of spectacular.

“We became addicted to it 20-some-odd years ago and never looked back,” Brennan says. “In terms of this particular show, it’s full of the classic Billy Joel and Elton John material. There’s so much to pick from, you could do three different shows and never repeat yourself.” On the Joel side, the lineup includes his delicate, emotional tunes, such as She’s Got a Way and Piano Man, which spotlights MSO’s concertmaster on solo violin. “Then, we’ll turn around and do the really, really big stuff, like You May Be Right, which is just a screaming rock’n’roll tune, or The Ballad of Billy the Kid.

“And then in the Elton half … there’s everything from Take Me to the Pilot from the early days, to Daniel and Rocket Man — that type of thing. But then of course, you get into the big stuff, like Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me and Circle of Life — you share that with an orchestra, and it just takes your breath away.” On Saturday Night’s Alright, the strings are practically ablaze. “The fire comes off their bows in that one,” Brennan says. “It is a very, very cool concept, and Elton John’s and Billy Joel’s material certainly lends itself to what we’re trying to do with it all.”

There’s a touch of irony folded in, too. “There are certain periods of both artists, where they dabbled with synthesizers, as did everyone … It was a cool, trendy thing, particularly in the ‘80s and the late ‘70s, where it’s ‘Let’s flirt with these brand new keyboard toys,’” says Brennan, whose job is to bring it all back to the orchestra. “Now we get to do it with the real thing again, or a facsimile thereof.

“I realized years ago, that there’s nothing orchestras can’t play, technically speaking,” Brennan says, such as expanding on a certain line in the music, without losing the flavor. “We don’t want to destroy something that was a brilliant thing in the first place. By the same token, we want to keep the orchestra very engaged, very much a part of things. So, stand back and let them roar, always in a tasteful manner, within the context of the song.”

Here, the material is so well-written as songs, and so thought-through structurally, “It’s just really, really great material for anyone to do what I do with it,” he says. “There’s a level of sophistication and cleverness to this stuff, that it’s just a joy to involve an orchestra with.”