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JC Brooks and the Uptown Sound @ Hotel Foster

Feb. 16, 2013

Feb. 18, 2013
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The retro soul revival of the last few years, led in large part by the likes of Daptone Records, has produced its fair share of quality music, but even at its best it comes with some persistent philosophical questions that get in the way. Shouldn’t we be looking forward, not backward? And even if we can recreate the timbre and feel of classic funk and soul, does it still mean the same things in 2013 that it did in the ’60s and ’70s? The music may be the same, but are we the same? Many of these concerns are well embodied by Chicago outfit JC Brooks and the Uptown Sound, which borrows liberally from the greats of the genre and, on occasion, does them justice. Wondering why they don’t make ’em like they used to? Well here’s a band that makes them exactly like they used to, which is their greatest asset as well as their biggest flaw.

Recording for Bloodshot Records, home to such other throwback acts as the Old 97s and The Waco Brothers, Brooks and company seem to pine for the sophisticated sartorial sense of the old days as much as the music. Decked out in sharp suits and shiny shoes, they were a perfect fit for the swanky, fashion-forward Hotel Foster, with its stylish bric-a-brac and signature (read: expensive) cocktails served in Mason jars. The real reason to turn up before 10:30 p.m. was not the ambiance, however, but the presence of John Kuester—also known as local hip-hop artist extraordinaire Kid Millions—on the decks. Kuester’s impeccable taste in old-school funk and soul 45s mostly kept the sold-out crowd in high spirits until it was time for the band to perform.

Without a deep discography to draw from—their debut album, Beat of Our Own Drum, came out in 2009—the band members touched on almost all of their material during their hour-and-a-half set, transitioning from sweaty, backbeat-heavy stompers like “Baadnews” from 2011’s Want More to sprightly new songs from their upcoming LP, which sound comparatively contemporary by reaching for reference points like Prince as much as James Brown, Marvin Gaye and Otis Redding (how’s that for stretching?). Cracks started to show when they seemed to start running out of things to play, which came shortly after their crowd-pleasing cover of Wilco’s “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart.” How can you not roll your eyes at a medley that includes both Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” and Moby’s “Natural Blues”?

When the band was clicking and Brooks—a preening, big-voiced belter with charisma to spare—succeeded at captivating the unwieldy audience, The Uptown Sound did well by the influences it apes so overtly. The group left the stage on one such high note with “Baltimore Is the New Brooklyn” (probably their best song), but at other times they came off like little more than a self-aggrandizing cover band, which was when you started wondering whether it was so wise to part with your $12 at the door. At its nadir, the show exposed JC Brooks and the Uptown Sound as what they are, empty easy listening laced with enough nostalgia to choke a horse. In a few shining moments, though, they revealed what they can be—an honest interpretation of old sounds that still have a lot of power. Frustratingly, however, those moments were few and far between. 


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