As JC Brooks and the Uptown Sound took the stage for WTMD's First Thursday concert in Mount Vernon this past June, the rain came.
But instead of allowing the dark clouds to damper the mood, lead singer Jayson Brooks saw an opportunity to make an impression. The magnetic frontman worked every inch of the stage, encouraging the crowd to clap along as he cleanly hit falsetto notes.
When the rain stopped and a rainbow emerged, it almost felt as if Brooks had willed the clouds away.
"I try not to frame it in my mind as a challenge to win the crowd over," said Brooks, 32. "It's still about putting on the same show."
It's the same approach an actor might bring to a long-running stage production — fitting, since Brooks, a former theater major, met his bandmates after a run of the show "Ragtime" in 2007. With newfound downtime, Brooks answered a Craigslist ad seeking a singer for a "soul-influenced band whose primary goal is to make people dance."
The Chicago quintet has been moving crowds ever since with its hybrid of soul, punk, R&B and rock. Before playing the Ottobar this Sunday for a headlining show, Brooks talked about covering Wilco, staying active in theater and the satirical song "Baltimore is the New Brooklyn."
Your band won a lot of new fans with a cover of Wilco's "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart." What did you love about the song, and what did you think you could bring to your own version?
I knew a couple of their tunes, but that wasn't one of the tunes I really knew. It came together at a sound check while we were waiting to do a promotional TV spot. We were goofing around in the studio. ... That took some imagination because the original is so down-tempo and low-key.
It was this goofish, accidental thing that netted us most of our fans today. As we're writing [new] stuff, we're trying to apply that same energy, the off-the-cuffness. We want to have another happy accident like that, but we don't want to be that cover band. We're trying to be organic because so far, our greatest example of success was just that.
I know you guys performed it with Wilco lead singer Jeff Tweedy. Did he have anything to say about it?
We didn't really talk about it; he just said he liked it. But it was vindication for all those ... Wilco fans out there that hated it. There were people that didn't want to see it tampered with, so getting Tweedy's stamp of approval was vindicating.
Do you still want to do theater?
I'm all-in with the band at this point, but I also know that whenever I take a break, I go back to theater. It's my first love. ... It's really important for me to stay connected to the theater community. Last year, the band got to do a show with me, and it got us talking about writing our own musical. It's giving me hope that I don't have to necessarily choose a love.
How did the song "Baltimore is the New Brooklyn" come together?
Our bassist Ben [Taylor] was raised in the area. The song for him is about gentrification. As soon as somewhere makes a name for having an underground arts scene, that's when rich [jerks] come in and buy it up and price out the reason people wanted to live there in the first place. It's not quite eating its tail, but it's defeating its purpose. For me, I interpreted it as to not overlook small art.
You're going into the studio in December to work on the next album. The new material has been described as "a little dark, a little dancier." What's feeding the creative process?
It's so funny being described as a "throwback, retro-soul band." It has become a harness instead of a compliment. We're beholden to it. So [the new material] is different. It nods more to the different stuff we listen to. I'm glad we no longer feel so beholden to being "that soul band." It's really freeing. We're probably going to lose some people that liked us because we were "throwback soul." But I'm very excited.
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