I've always romanticized the idea of the local band. There's something about giving your heart to the local group that's so liberating. You never know what's going to happen. You could be like Liverpudlians in the Cavern Club watching the Beatles on their lunch hour or Floridians grooving on Petty before her made it bid. Alternately, you could be pledging allegiance to a group that will never really make it out of your town or state or region, a group whose star is destined only to shine for those who know them. You might well spend many nights of your future waxing on about that group that never quite found its national audience to fellow bar-goers who nod politely and then leave when there's a convenient pause in the rant.
As I took in my fourth JC Brooks & The Uptown Sound performance of the last year at Millennium Park tonight, I couldn't help but think how fortunate I was that THIS was one of those local bands that I get to champion, because I know it's not just me who thinks that they're the real deal.
Tonight Brooks & Associates were playing a free show at the gorgeous Pritzker Pavilion as part of the preparation for this weekend's Gospel Music Festival across the city. One great thing about Chicago is how many different venues it has to show off local talent and this was yet another new audience for me to see JC try and conquer. I'd seen the brew up sweaty dance parties at The Hideout and open for post-punk masters. They've rocked everything from local street fests to local record stores, but this was a new challenge - playing not just a bigger venue, but one with an audience more interested in their rootsy soul than their avant-dance influences.
Fortunately theirs is a band that can satisfy a clap-along gospel audience just as easily as a pre-post-punk dance crowd and might even have the chops to get the former dancing like the latter and vice-versa. Though they're only two records into their career, Brooks and his band are so well-versed in R&B, soul and gospel that they were easily able to craft setlist with enough falsetto and throwback appeal to satisfy the gospel purists as well as the hipsters, dilletantes and lawn-jockeys that populate any free show in Millenium Park.
They started off a bit raucous with a set of thumpers including "Beat Of Our Own Drum" and "I Can See Everything" before cooling down with the topical neo-Beach Music of "I Got High". This segued into perhaps the most gospel-oriented portion and highlight of the set as the band treated the crowd to covers of the forgotten Chicago soul group the Kaldirons and then a slowed down version of Wilco's "I Am Trying To Break Your Heart", followed by two new songs, that were both infused with the gospel spirit of old R&B along with Sam Cooke-style ruminative soul.
Ever the showmen, Brooks and the band ended strong with a set that allowed them to stretch their late 60's James Brown fetish with funky guitars scratching over impossibly danceable grooves. The usual four-piece band was also joined tonight by local musicians JoVia on bongos and percussion and Chris Neal on saxophone and their added punch and depth helped give songs like "Baaadnews" and "I Can See Everything" the staying power to get people dancing in the aisles and humming along. Their ability to mix with the Uptown Sound's regulars actually gave the band space to play giving guitar licks and bass parts a little more freedom and space which was used to project them from the Pritzker stage to the back of the lawn.
There was only a one-song encore, "Don't Lock The Door" which might have been a disappointment to some fans. Missing was the crowd-favorite "Baltimore Is The New Brooklyn" and current single "Sister Ray Charles". But from where I was sitting, there was nothing about the evening to dislike. I'd seen a great band expand their audience, road test some outstanding new material and create a musical experience that brought diverse crowds together on a refreshingly-cool night in this balmy Chicago summer.
On an evening when the rest of the nation watched the Galactic Empire run roughshod over their lovabley photogenic upstart rivals, it was particularly enjoyable to see a local band continue to make good and expand its audience. Like many of JC Brooks' own ballads, the growth of the Uptown Sound may be a slow-developing feat but it's so enjoyable to watch, you don't mind sitting back on a summer night and letting them take their time.
The Beat (Of Our Own Drum)
Like a Ship [TL Barrett]
I Can See Everything
I Got High
To Love Someone (That Don't Love You) [The Kaldirons]
I Am Trying To Break Your Heart [Wilco]
These Things I Know To Be [New]
Berry Please [New]
I Can See Everything
Don't Lock The Door