Monday, December 11, 2017
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JC Brooks and the Uptown Sound: Bringing classic soul to Tropical Heatwave

Soul music is filled with theatrics — think of James Brown, collapsing on stage, being covered with a cape and walked offstage, then dramatically turning and running back to the microphone.

Chicago soul-punk crew JC Brooks and the Uptown Sound's connection to the theater is quite literal. Singer Brooks is an actor while guitarist and songwriter Billy Bungeroth is a director with the famed Second City improv comedy troupe.

"I still direct over there," Bungeroth says by telephone from Chicago during a brief respite from the road.

"I don't have quite the amount of time anymore because of the band, but I love working at the theater," Bungeroth says. "It's still very much a part of my life."

Brooks and Bungeroth are spending less time in theaters these days and more in the clubs, along with bandmates Kevin Marks (drums) and Ben Taylor (bass).

"The tour is kind of never-ending now," Bungeroth says, adding that the band just completed West Coast and Midwest jaunts with a Southern leg up next. On Saturday, they'll perform at WMNF's Tropical Heatwave festival in Ybor City.

The band's second album (and first for Chicago's Bloodshot Records), Want More, was released last year, following the self-released 2009 debut, Beat of Our Own Drum. Helping build anticipation for the album was the 2010 release of one of its tracks, a charging remake of Wilco's I Am Trying to Break Your Heart.

"I got the idea, 'What if that song was arranged as a soul song?' " Bungeroth says.

"We were interested in covers that were a little different," he adds. "We had conversations about what would be a good song to cover and how could we make it our own.

"I was and still am a huge Wilco fan," he adds. "It wasn't just a marketing thing."

Wilco's Jeff Tweedy, the composer, was unabashed in his praise for the Uptown Sound's version, which was part of the band's set before it was committed to tape.

"That was the reason we wound up continuing to play it and eventually record it," Bungeroth says. Once Tweedy voiced his approval, "it was a no-brainer to record it and put it out.

Brooks and Bungeroth met, not through theater connections, but through Craigslist. "That's probably the most boring thing about this band and the one people like to print the most," Bungeroth says with a laugh.

The sonic style of the band is no accident, Bungeroth confirms, and retro-soul was not what he was after.

"This is exactly what I was thinking," Bungeroth says of the band's sound, which he categorizes as "aggressive dance music."

"I wasn't aware there was a retro soul thing happening. I didn't even know about Amy Winehouse. That record broke around the time the band was first meeting," he says.

"I was thinking, 'Let's put a band together to play soul,' but we always knew it wasn't going to be straight retro," Bungeroth says. "We knew it would have elements of other things."

Those other elements are better blended into the overall R&B sound on "Want More," unlike on Beat of Our Own Drum.

"Our first album is a little more of a punk rock take on soul," Bungeroth says. "It was made very cheaply and very fast.

"It's a nice document of that time," Bungeroth says. "Put it this way — I don't think I learned to play guitar until afterward, but I like it."

Bungeroth is chomping at the bit to make album No. 3.

"I can't wait to make another album," he says. "We're doing a lot of writing and looking at producers now."

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