JC's got a brand-new bag

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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)

What was going on here?

Evolution, the band members told me later. They recently recorded demos for their next album, which will be made this winter with indie rock producer Howard Bilerman, a former member of Arcade Fire.

"I know, in general, we receive a love 'em or hate 'em response from soul people, but the next album will definitely split people," said Rosenstein. "We are definitely going to hear people say, 'We knew all along they weren't really into soul music!'" Later, when I asked them about the sound-checked Eno song, they said they didn't really remember.

But that's definitely the kind of music they grew up listening to.

Brooks — who actually lives in Uptown and whose full name is Jayson Kodi Gaucho Adolfo Brooks — told me he considered answering my questions in character, playing "JC Brooks," outsized soul performer. Lies? I asked. "Not outright lies," he said, "just small embellishments of truth — minor deviations from truth."

For instance, Brooks was going to say he spent his summers communing with soul music in the South. The truth is, he grew up a shy kid in Camden, N.J., and occasionally visited cousins in the South. Though his mother sang in bands and he eventually acquired her taste for Anita Baker and Steely Dan, his own taste veered more to Stone Temple Pilots than Sam Cooke. He studied theater at Point Park University in Pittsburgh, moved to Chicago to become a stage actor, landed a few semi-major parts in Porchlight Music Theatre's productions of "It's a Wonderful Life" and "Ragtime," and worked for a while at a talent agency.

The members of Uptown Sound are all in their 30s. Most have listened to a fair amount of vintage soul. But Bungeroth said they mostly talked about the Clash at their first rehearsal. Brooks spent months watching soul concerts on DVD and clips of Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett on YouTube, "using it as a jumping-off to create a persona." (Asked why the band isn't JK Brooks and the Uptown Sound, considering his actual name begins Jayson Kodi, he said: "We didn't want anyone to think JK Brooks and the Harry Potter Revue or something.")

Their timing was good.

Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, Fitz and the Tantrums, Amy Winehouse — a retro-soul wave was happening. On the strength of their live act, the Uptown Sound rode it for a couple of years. Then in 2009, while tooling around somewhat on Ciba's advice, the band recorded a cover of a non-soul song. It was going be either a Wilco song or the Smiths' "This Charming Man."

"It wasn't calculated," Taylor said, "but we recognized it would be a good move." The rest is a laughably coincidental series of happy occurrences: Wilco saw a YouTube clip of the Uptown Sound performing the song at a Chicago street fair. Jeff Tweedy sat in at a show. Wilco invited them to play its Solid Sound Festival in New England. Then they met Emanuel at a Tweedy benefit performance.

"Rahm was like, 'I really want you guys to play the inauguration for me,'" Bungeroth recalled. "So Ben pointed out he hadn't been elected yet, and Rahm kind of shrugged that off — like, you know, oh, details!"

The trouble, however, with building a reputation as a smoking 21st-century impression of a '60s soul band is that, well, it's a very specific image. Rob Miller at Bloodshot said one of the reasons they were circling each other for months before committing was that his label is well known as a home of Americana and old sounds, and the Uptown Sound "wanted to be sure there was room to progress." Their manager, Hillel Frankel, who also manages Poi Dog Pondering, said the "goal is to be less of a concept because the music is getting more interesting."

Bungeroth put it better:

"We like soul. But we don't want to give the illusion we grew up in the civil rights movement." Besides, he said, '70s progressive punks Television are a bigger influence. Favorite guitarist? The Smiths' Johnny Marr.

As for the missing Brooks: He was playing kickball.

When he returned, he ducked into a trailer, emerging a few moments later with his pompadour askew — less Elvis, more Grace Jones. As the band rode to the stage in golf carts, he was quiet. He is quiet.

"He brings down the house," said Walter Stearns, former artistic director of the Porchlight (now executive director of the Mercury Theater). "But he's like a different person off the stage. It's like he's playing a role."

It's exactly like that.

But a convincing role. The band's Lollapalooza moment was modest — maybe 500 people. But many knew the lyrics. When Brooks asked, "Can I get an amen?" the roar was loud. "I don't have to ask twice," he said.

When the set was over 45 minutes later, the temperature, at 12:45 p.m., was in the 90s. The Uptown Sound was slick with sweat — everyone except the outsized man who had swiveled and spun for the entire show. Brooks, in tight tan chinos, a white shirt and black boots, looked miraculously untouched by moisture. His white shirt — the kind of conservative button-down number you imagine famous authors wearing on safari — appeared to be as dry as when he arrived. Applause still rippling, he retreated to his golf cart, stepping around wires and equipment. Then he tugged at his shirt and the sweat cascaded off. The material was so saturated not an inch of shirt was untouched.

"It's all an illusion," he laughed. "I am soaked to the bone!"

cborrelli@tribune.com

Twitter @borrelli

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