J.C. Brooks & the Uptown Sound might seem, at first blush, to be one of the steady stream of throwback bands that have emerged since Sharon Jones and Amy Winehouse precipitated the latest soul revival. The band had its origins in a Craigslist ad placed by its guitar player, who, tired of the immobility of indie-rock audiences, sought collaborators interested in playing “aggressive dance music.” But as the taglines it applies to itself — “post-punk soul,” “raw power Chicago soul” — suggest, the band, which plays T.T. the Bear’s Place Tuesday night, doesn’t quite see itself that way.
“A lot of bands are doing that,” says band member (and former Bostonian) Ben Taylor, speaking by phone. “They’re very much trying to re-create something that was already done 40 years ago. We fully admit that we have elements of that; all of those things are still in us. But as we continue to write new music, we continue to push beyond that.”
The difference, Taylor says, is rooted in the band’s post-punk character, which combines a willingness to introduce new musical elements with punk energy and aggressiveness. “It’s a kind of throwing away of the rules. Post-punk is the stuff we grew up on, and those bands — bands like Public Enemy, the Beastie Boys — had not quite a kitchen-sink approach, but almost, with influences that they brought in and reworked.”
When Craigslist brought them together, Taylor and his fellow founders — guitarist Billy Bungeroth and singer J.C. Brooks — saw the soul revival happening, so that’s where they started. “J.C. is a theater director, so he wanted to dress it up a little with the suits, and structure it a little more like a revue,” Taylor says. Live performance has been a big part of the Uptown Sound from the get-go. “What we work on the most is the live show. We want to put on an entertaining show — there’s a beginning, a middle, an end, and we try to keep things flowing,” he explains. “Our aim is to maximize the excitement.”
It’s their attitude, and explosive nature live, that attracted the attention of their label, Chicago-based Bloodshot Records, which released the band’s sophomore album, “Want More,” last fall. Bloodshot is typically seen as an alt-country label, but owner Rob Miller says he was attracted to the Uptown Sound by the same things that have attracted him to the label’s other bands. “You see them live, they sell it, they live it, they mean it. It just happens to be from a soul perspective; there’s not an ounce of country music in them.” Just as important, Miller notes, is the “punk aesthetic" they share with their Bloodshot roster-mates: “They’re doing it themselves, and they’re doing it in a way that ignores great segments of recent popular culture.”
“Want More” sounds a lot more like a soul record than the band’s first release, 2009’s “Beat of Our Own Drum.” It’s a more varied and developed record as well, ranging through hard funk (“Baaadnews”), northern soul (“I Got High”), string-swathed Philadelphia soul (“To Love Someone [That Don’t Love You]),” and even country-soul that evokes “Exile’’-vintage Rolling Stones (“Missing Things”).
Taylor attributes the change to the time the band spent between the two records serving as a house band of sorts for an “Eccentric Soul Revue” put together by the soul archeologists at Chicago reissue label Numero Group. “We ended up doing a whole tour backing guys like Syl Johnson and people who had been in the soul scene back in the late ’60s and early ’70s. So, just by learning how to play three dozen songs, we had to really tighten up our game. That was kind of our school to learn how to really play soul music,” he says.
The experience “helped move things forward, and helped us get our soul chops,” he adds. “What we realized was that we had a chance to really learn, to sit at the feet of the masters, of people who created this music.”
That experience provided the chance to pay it back as well. “To Love Someone (That Don’t Love You)” was a song the Uptown Sound learned and played as part of the revue with the group that originally recorded the song, the Kaldirons. “Then we started playing it in our own set, and it really worked,” Taylor says. “J.C. just sounded great on it with his falsetto. So we recorded it, and we were really happy with the way it turned out. And we knew the guys who did it originally, so it was neat to be able to shine a light back on them. It’s a beautiful song.”