Equalizer Chicago September Wrap-Up: Mayer Hawthorne and the County, Buff1 & 14KT, JC Brooks and the Uptown Sound

review by Ali Weiss
photos by Karla Svatos

It was the perfect storm. First you’ve got charismatic soul outfit JC Brooks and the Uptown Sound, easily one of Chicago’s top indie bands. And they’re just the opening act. For whom? How about two immensely popular underground hip hop / soul acts from the nearby suburb of Ann Arbor, MI. Thanks to Buff1, 14KT and headliner Mayer Hawthorne and the County, we spotted plenty of Tigers gear in the house (way to rub it in, visitors!) and darkroom remained SRO for all bands. All advance tickets sold out two days before the show, a first for Equalizer, and people lined up down the block in the rain to pay at the door.

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Resident DJ Johnny Kesh relinquished the turntables for this Equalizer, leaving local it up to capable DJ’s Trew and Risk to keep soul theme going in between the live sets. Some swear they saw Kesh in the crowd, but maybe that was the heat playing tricks on us. Yes, it bears mentioning that the room got sticky-icky hot with all the bodies, but that only increased the soul-club vibe (we didn’t have to dance onstage in a three-piece suit).

JC Brooks and the Uptown Sound‘s mix of star-quality presence and musical precision kept club goers either dancing or just staring in slack-jawed awe. In addition to Brooks’s scary-strong vocal range, the singer’s also quite the comedian. In one “soul talk” break, he asked the crowd if they’ve ever felt trapped in a relationship. To paraphrase: “You almost wish the relationship police would stop you and say, ‘Excuse me, sir, but you were doing Happily-Ever-After in a Let’s-See-How-It-Goes zone.’” Plenty of little gems like that helped push the show over the edge from great to unforgettable.

And then there’s the Wilco song. The Uptown Sound’s blazing rendition of “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” stands on par with cross-genre covers like Johnny Cash’s reboot of “Hurt.” We must shout out to guitarist Billy Bungeroth for the arrangement, which elevates Wilco’s moving toy piano notes to a cathartic brass line.

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We wouldn’t want to sing happy birthday to a deaf rabbit after Brooks had performed. Luckily for Buff1, he raps. And that he did, tearing down the hand-waving house from his perch on the amps at the edge of the stage. He free-styled, bantered, and revved up the crowd for his fellow A-Side Worldwide artist Mayer Hawthorne. He performed songs off his new album, There’s Only One, but the set retained a raw, bare bones feel, where the flow and lyrics took precedence over re-creating a recorded hit. That said, Buff1 does have hits with his fans, and the packed crowd could be heard rapping along with a lot of the set.

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For those of us taking a breather on the sofas in the back of darkroom, Mayer Hawthorne‘s entrance beyond a sea of bodies almost took us by surprise. But thanks to a classy Ed McMahon intro, the crowd rose to its feet as the man of the hour took the stage in his signature suit and black-rimmed glasses. Hawthorne began the set with his two new singles, “Just Ain’t Gonna Work Out” and “Maybe So, Maybe No.” His falsetto croon in the former number played well live, and Hawthorne’s unapologetically imperfect vocals are part of his charm. He’s not claiming to approach the Otis Redding-level singing of someone like Brooks. Rather, he has an ear for soul music, writes plenty of great songs and uses his hip hop roots and crate-digging sensibilities to create a smooth, catchy sound.

Hawthorne played almost every instrument on his soul album, A Strange Arrangement, and still his band owns the music as they play. “The County” were tight, and they were game for improvisation too. After two songs, Hawthorne decided to “mix it up” and asked his band to riff on a variety of genres until settling on reggae; this led to a mini “Just Ain’t Gonna Work Out” reprise to a dance hall beat. Hawthorne mixed in some rapping of his own (remember, he started in hip hop before venturing into soul, initially as a joke) and his playful, relaxed delivery gives off the same carefree vibe as his singing. He also won our vote for smoothest sales pitch by assuring the men in the crowd that no lady can resist a man with a red, heart-shaped 7-inch.)

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It was an Equalizer for the books, with old-school vibes in the air and vinyl on both the merch tables and turntables. We emerged from the steamy darkroom wanting for nothing, except maybe a ’63 Cadillac to take us home.

Equalizer happens every final Friday at darkroom in Chicago, sponsored by KEXP and 312unes. A video of the September 25 show is in the works, and fans may subscribe to the KEXP Chicago Posse’s Youtube channel to get notified as soon as it’s up.

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