JC Brooks Band continues its comeback at inaugural Off North Shore festival


There’s a suburban invasion this summer — and it’s not just the cicadas.

A new crop of music festivals are settling in, too. Among them are the Evanston Folk Fest (September 7-8) and the Off North Shore: Skokie Music Festival (June 21-22), which will take their rightful place alongside North Shore stalwarts like Winnetka Music Fest ( June 14-15) and Out of Space (July 26-28), not to mention Riot Fest at its new Bridgeview location (Sept 20-22).

Off the North Shore, taking place at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts), boasts an impressive lineup for its inaugural year. Friday night (June 21) features headliners Mike Campbell & the Dirty Knobs (the project of the beloved Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers guitarist) and Southern rock sisters Larkin Poe directly from an appearance at Bonnaroo, while Saturday (June 22) will wrap up the two-day eent with the incredible blues-rock-soul-alt rock queen Grace Potter as well as an opening slot from the Chicago staple JC Brooks Band.

“I talk to so many people who are parents of young children in the ‘burbs that really want to go see a fest or concert, and they want to see notable artists — not necessarily a tribute band. We had the realization: Why make everyone go to the city? Let’s bring the show to them,” says Merrill Miller, manager of concerts for North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, who curated the lineup for the family-friendly event and has big ideas for its future. “Why can’t we morph this into the suburban version of Pitchfork, or a truly larger music festival in this vicinity?”

The idea for Off North Shore, says Miller, grew from the village’s successful Out Back Summer Sessions held in the venue’s parking lot during the pandemic, and a desire to do more outdoor events during the summer. Although the festival was originally slated for the larger fields of the Skokie Sports Park, the organizing team diverted plans due to this year’s unprecedented cicada event. Instead, this weekend’s concerts — each day needing its own admission ticket — will now be held inside the theater on Skokie Boulevard, while the areas outside the venue will host food trucks and other activities.

“Really, seeing these bands in such an intimate space is the most important thing,” says Miller.

One of them is the incomparable JC Brooks Band, an indie neo-soul/funk/punk rock act born and bred in Chicago, steadfastly making its comeback. Once signed to Bloodshot Records, the dapper troupe (originally named JC Brooks & the Uptown Sound) made some incredible noise around its debut more than a decade ago, nabbing slots at Lollapalooza, opening for the likes of Buddy Guy and Robert Plant, forming a friendship with Wilco and Jeff Tweedy, and even playing Rahm Emanuel’s inauguration back in 2011.

Though things started to fizzle around 2016 due to conflicts within the band and being dropped by the label, the newly re-formed and renamed ensemble is back at it. Their first major event was at last year’s NASCAR Chicago Street Race event where, due to the plague-like rains, they were one of the only bands who got stage time along with The Black Crowes. It’s also where Miller first saw the band and knew, “I need to find a way to work with them,” he says.

“It was a very weird, rainy day,” Brooks remembers of that gig, recalling the downtrodden mood of everyone working backstage after mourning the passing of one of the fest’s tech crew members in a devastating accident early in the day.

But, says Brooks, “It was nice to be back on a big stage. It had been a while since I got to stretch my legs in that arena. And I just love it … getting to combine a lot of heightened theatricality with interaction with people.”

For anyone who’s scene Brooks live, his highly animated stage presence is one of his most endearing qualities. The New Jersey native actually got his start in theater, and it’s a medium he returned to in the band’s wake the last several years, including taking on a role as managing director of the long-running comedy house, Annoyance Theatre.

“It’s gotten me back into improv. I hadn’t really done it since before the band,” says Brooks, noting he’s also taken part in recent productions at the Goodman Theatre including Ike Holter’s “I Hate It Here.”

But, Brooks is all too happy to tap back into his music side, and foreshadows there will be more material soon — though it will sound different.

“My newer music is still kind of all over the place, with some punk elements, some hip-hop elements. I still think of it as rock, even though it has more electronic sounds and R&B,” he says, adding he’s lately been inspired by “sad boy” artists like James Blake and Louis Cole.

While the Off North Shore set will still be the “full JC Brooks Band experience” people have come to know and love, the artist is also looking to stretch himself and his brand soon after the gig.

“I’m looking forward to launching a new thing to see if the soul memory has faded enough from the name JC Brooks to allow people to hear something new in the music — or if I maybe need to perform under my other persona Bobby Melodrama,” he says, adding that new music will be put on Bandcamp soon.

“The overall lesson I learned from the experience between losing our contract with Bloodshot and now, is that people love it when JC Brooks is selling soul and they’re lukewarm when it’s selling anything else, but I hope that can change.”





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