By Julie Espinosa
Early in his set with the Uptown Sound at the Black Cat last Saturday night, JC Brooks made it clear that the audience members would be active participants in the evening’s show. It wasn’t so much a demand, as it was an inevitability. “I am a chatty Cathy this evening!” Brooks remarked, after addressing the crowd directly multiple times to provide anecdotal commentary between songs. With his colloquial demeanor and contagious energy, Brooks quickly coaxed the crowd from a standstill into a fervent call and response rivaling that between a Baptist pastor and his congregants.
JC Brooks and the Uptown Sound occupy the curious genre that’s been labeled “retro soul.” Unlike the neo-soul groups from the 90s that built upon the classic styles of James and Aretha to create something new and different, retro-soul music actually sounds a lot more like the original. If you didn’t know for a fact you were listening to a contemporary band, you might think you’d stumbled upon something recorded a half a century ago.
One element that sets this band apart from the sea of soul revival bands is lead singer JC Brooks’ powerful range, which varies from the traditional explosive soul-style yells to fast-paced rap songs to high-pitched, breathy ballads reminiscent of Prince. The lyrics and pacing of a few of the songs even sound like they could be from a rock opera, which is fitting as lead singer Brooks acted in musicals before starting the band with Guitarist Billy Bungeroth back in 2007. (The Chicago-based band also performed the 2011 production of the musical Passing Strange, with Brooks as the lead character and the band playing the music, further testament to their theatrical tendencies.) If all of that wasn’t enough variety to satisfy the entire crowd’s musical proclivities, towards the end of the set, JC Brooks and his band pulled out the stops and launched into the most amazing uptempo version of Blackstreet’s “No Diggity,” putting their own jazzy spin on the popular 90s hip-hop song.
As Brooks rocked out from his pulpit on stage, audience members did their best to match his level of fervor and gain approval. Sometimes they succeeded, like when Brooks applauded them for all knowing how to do EU’s “Da Butt.” “I should have known the home of go-go would know how about da butt!” Brooks exclaimed. And sometimes they fell short. When the crowd shouted “Witness!” in response to Brooks’ “Can I get a witness?” Brooks crumple on the stage with laughter. (As he subsequently instructed, the one and only correct response is “I testify!”) Despite this faux-paus, and another briefly tense moment during the song “Baltimore” (“‘Cause no one really wants to be down in Washington, D.C!”), the energy buzzing between stage and sea was dang near perfect all night long.