The local American music festival Twangfest is now in its fourteenth year. Long past its adolescence and its awkward phase, the booking for the four-night showcase shows that its teenage years are both classically minded and musically adventurous. For every old-timer on the bill (Ray Wylie Hubbard, Jason & the Scorchers), the Twang Gang brings in new talent as well. Friday night's line-up skewed younger with two up-and-comers (JC Brooks & the Uptown Sound and Those Darlins) and one established garage-rock favorite (the Detroit Cobras).
Hailing from Chicago, JC Brooks & the Uptown Sound opened the night a little after 8 p.m. and wasted no time ingratiating itself with '60s soul-revue licks and plenty of James Brown-indebted drum breaks. Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings are the reigning monarchs of this particular soul revival subset, but Brooks and his crew are proof that the scene has strong enough legs to support others. Of course, that all rests on Brooks' shoulders - bands like these live and die with their singers, and the bulky but baby-faced vocalist had all the right moves, from extemporaneous soul-shouts to Marvin Gaye-worthy crooning.
Brooks & the Uptown Sound have found no shortage of blog love thanks to its cover of Wilco's "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart," which came early in last night's set. The band is smart enough not to paint itself in a corner by reworking indie hits as Stax/Volt classics, but as a one-off it works beautifully. (In particular, interspersing part of "Theologians" in the bridge is a masterstroke, and proof that Brooks is a skilled stylist and interpreter.) The Uptown Sound's originals kept the vibe percolating; "Baltimore is the New Brooklyn" should be adopted by Charm City's tourism board and "Beat of Our Own Drum," the title track to the group's LP, closed out the set with a heavy thumping bass line.
JC Brooks & the Uptown Sound won over the crowd with smooth soul and hot horn lines, but Those Darlins proved more divisive. The five-piece looked more like an art-rock collective than a country-garage girl group, taking the stage in tattered hospital gowns (a nod, perhaps, to singer/ukulele player Nikki Darlin's broken arm. She made the best of a bad situation and used her sling to ferry a PBR tallboy to the stage). Nikki, along with her "sisters" Jessi and Kelley, play junked-up country rock that sounds like your grand-dad's C&W record collection being kicked down the stairs. None of the three ladies have a remarkable voice, but when they sing in congress (but rarely in harmony) the songs take on a lovably fucked-up quality.
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