JC's got a brand-new bag

Known for retro soul, Uptown Sound may be ready for a change of tune

JC Brooks and the Uptown Sound

From left, Andy Rosenstein, Ben Taylor, Jayson Brooks, Kevin Marks, and Bily Bungeroth of JC Brooks and the Uptown Sound pose for a portrait outside of Rax Trax studio. (Armando L. Sanchez, Chicago Tribune / September 12, 2012)

Ten minutes to showtime.

And there was no showman.

"Where is he?" asked Ben Taylor, bassist of the Chicago soul revue JC Brooks and the Uptown Sound, pacing beside a golf cart ready to whisk him and his band mates to the stage. JC Brooks, their magnetic frontman, a performer whose pompadour often floats above crowds of people, was nowhere in sight. Taylor scanned the grounds again then sighed.

This was last month at Lollapalooza, in the backstage Artists Village area, a row of white tented bungalows and white picket fences. The band drew an inopportune set time: noon Saturday. And now it was 11:50 a.m. True, Grant Park would not be packed. True, a soul revue is no sure thing at a festival full of indie rock. But the attention and prestige from playing a show this high-profile ...

"We're blowing it, man!" barked drummer Kevin Marks, visibly agitated with the missing singer.

Brooks goes on walkabouts, keyboardist Andy Rosenstein told me, explaining. It happens. But he always shows up. The stakes just seem so much higher than even a year ago. As if to underline the point, Marks' 18-month-old son wobbled past. He wore a T-shirt that read "Moving to the Beat of My Own Drum," a wry reference to the band's first album, 2009's "Beat of Our Own Drum." Marks smiled at his son, then frowned.

He has a day job detailing vintage cars and he's taken off time to tour. Rosenstein, until recently, was working as an assistant editor on the A&E crime series "The First 48." Before Playboy left Chicago, Taylor quit his job in the magazine's licensing department to tend to the band's rising fortunes. Brooks, who moved to Chicago to act (and was recently nominated for a non-Equity Jeff Award for his role in Bailiwick Chicago's "Passing Strange"), sidelined a promising theater career. Guitarist Billy Bungeroth — the band idea was his; he placed an ad on Craigslist seeking musicians to make "aggressive dance music" — watched the group get a foothold at the same time he was becoming an acclaimed stage director at Second City.

He chose soul music — at least for the moment.

Earlier that morning, during a 9 a.m. sound check, Brooks sat back on the stage. The way he sees it, the Uptown Sound only appears to be on a roll, only seems to be taking off. In the past year alone, they've had sold-out shows at Metro, landed prized gigs at festivals, signed with Bloodshot Records and scored an influential fan in Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who invited them to be the house band at his inauguration bash.

"But the only thing I measure our success by now is how well I pay the rent and my bills," Brooks said. People constantly tell him the Uptown Sound is about to break big, "but everything must be bigger than it feels like. Things are happening now, OK. But people have been telling us we've been on the edge for years — they've been saying it for so long we've learned the edge is very wide. That or the Uptown Sound is very small."

Or both.

Brooks sat up and unwound his long frame. He is tall, 6 feet 3 inches; he's been that tall since sixth grade. When he stood, I could read the Muhammad Ali quote on the back of his shirt: "Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion." Which, considering it was on an old high school wrestling T-shirt he bought at a thrift store, might seem to carry a degree of hipster irony. The band, on the other hand, definitely means it.

JC Brooks and The Uptown Sound, which calls itself "post-punk soul" and feels simultaneously old and new, Sam Cooke-soulful with an indie rock chill, may have started in 2007 with a few more Clash-Specials-English-Beat, ska-punk-dance-hall intentions; they may have stuck a finger in the air, read the zeitgeist and morphed into a retro-soul/R&B act complete with matching suits. And they may have dropped those suits last winter and made the decision to broaden their sound about the time the retro-soul thing was waning.

Indeed, you could say the band has a kind of frenemy-ish relationship with whatever small soul scene exists in Chicago.

"I don't think those guys are trying to be a successful soul band. I just think they want to be successful," said John Ciba of Chicago's Rabbit Factory Records, which released the band's first record on vinyl. (The Numero Group, the Chicago label known for its acclaimed reissues of soul records, once hired the band to do a promotional tour for the label but declined to offer any comment for this article.)

It may seem at times that the Uptown Sound is not a soul band so much as a group of talented Chicago musicians playing a soul band — a kind of 21st century Blues Brothers without the obvious wink attached.

But reputations have been built on less, and theirs, ascendant throughout Chicago for the past five years, was built on a pair of tough-to-begrudge strengths: their clever, upbeat Sam-and-Dave-esque cover of "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart," a signature, downbeat tune from Wilco. And their live act, a dance party centered on a shimmying, knee-dropping Brooks, so undeniable a performer that questions of authenticity can feel moot. (JC Brooks and the Uptown Sound play Saturday at the Cultivate Festival in Lincoln Park.)

When I asked Rob Miller, co-founder of Bloodshot, why he signed them, he said, "Have you seen them live?" When I asked him what exactly he liked about them, he said again, "Have you seen them live?"

That live act has put them on the road for the past year in support of "Want More," their Bloodshot debut, a fairly representative R&B record (that includes the Wilco cover). But during the Lollapalooza sound check, a new sound seemed to hang in the air. Brooks walked to the lip of the stage, pirouetted slowly, kicked a heel up and lay back. The band broke into "River," a new song with the surging horns and raspy tension of an old Otis Redding slow burn. It's traditional Uptown Sound territory. Brooks sang on his back, his words lifting into the scaffolding. But after a few minutes, the song fell casually apart and Brooks sang a few lines to himself from David Bowie's "Golden Years" — Bowie being the one artist, Taylor told me, we all agree on now.

Then Taylor offhandedly thumped out the lush, distinctly non-R&B opening of Brian Eno's "Here Come the Warm Jets." Rosenstein joined in. After that, too, collapsed, Bungeroth played the opening chords of another new song — though for a minute I thought they were playing a New Order cover. Or maybe Arcade Fire?