Music News

JC Brooks and the Uptown Sound Keep Chicago Soul Modern

When Chicago soul band JC Brooks & the Uptown Sound went into a recording studio to lay down tracks for their recent new album Want More, they weren't interested in re-creating the high-energy feel of their live shows. "For me, they're two different ways of experiencing the band," he says. "We have recordings that capture a lot more of the raw energy, live albums. We try to make those available for people who like the live shows. But with Want More, I like the recording, and one of the things is that we played these songs out live before we recorded them. It definitely helped."

Want More's not as hard-hittingly funky as albums from other contemporary soul acts like Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings or Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears, and it's mellower than the band's stage presentation. "I enjoy screaming at people, and the rest of the guys like being in the pocket," says Brooks. "We found a happy medium between doing soul soul soul and rocking out."

Rather than re-creating the live show, which can draw on the energy and volume of funk and garage rock, the band — Brooks, guitarist Billy Bungeroth, drummer Kevin Marks, and bassist Ben Taylor — wanted to define things a little more narrowly. Want More goes for a sweeter and mellower vibe, with Brooks often favoring a sweetly crooning falsetto that recalls some of the smoother Chicago soul greats, like The Dells and The Inspirations, and acts on Chi-town's Chess label. "There's definitely more of a 'band sound' than our first album," says Brooks. "We came up with what we think of as our sound. This time, we actually had time to arrange the tracks. It's a more cohesive statement than our first album."

Brooks and his band wanted to acknowledge Chicago's soul history without feeling particularly beholden to it, and they nod in that direction with a cover of "To Love Someone (Who Don't Love You)." The 1970 tune is from super-obscure Chicago act The Kaldirons, a high school soul group on the regional Twinight label. (Give thanks to the Numero Group's Eccentric Soul series for shining a light on that one a few years back.) And it's not just to decades back that Brooks looks when staking a place in Chicago music lineage; Want More also boasts a tender soul interpretation of Wilco's "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart" (with a little "Theologians" thrown in for good measure).

Brooks says that though soul is at the heart of what he does with his band, his live shows expand on the band sound Want More documents. "I wouldn't put us firmly in that camp," he says. "Soul was a foot in the door of people's consciousness. We do a lot of different kinds of music — there's the funk side, garage side, a bit of glam in there. The way I've seen music writers write about soul, it seems about a very limiting definition. When I see soul get written about, people talk about retro-throwback-revival whatever. But almost anything you do is going to have a feeling. Soul is not a sound that was ready to be discarded. Modern soul isn't oftentimes talked about unless it's neo-soul or jazz-soul, so it's a term that's a foot in the door."

Before focusing full-time on his band, Brooks made a name for himself in Chicago theater (musical and otherwise). He sang in bands throughout high school and college, and he sees a lot of parallels to acting and working as a frontman. He says he draws on his theatrical training for his music performances. "Absolutely!" he says. "It's a lot of fun of being in front of stage. There's a catharsis together [between performer and audience]. For me, if you're not getting anything from the audience, that's where the theater background comes in. The show's a lot less alive, maybe a little more cookie-cutter, but the show must still go on. We always give 100 percent, but when the audience is feeling it sometimes we give 110, y'know?"

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Chris Hassiotis