Here is something you may already know: Con Brio is a phenomenal live band. That's especially true in 2016, when they've poured pure Pennzoil in their already well-oiled machine by touring around the world, but the essential magic was always there: frontman Ziek McCarter's nonstop James Brown-by-way-of Michael Jackson moves, the rhythm section's lock-in-step churn, horn and guitar solos that reach for the fire extinguisher before they begin, and the band's long dynamic crescendos, building to blissful, explosive release. Most Broadway musicals have one or two numbers that people call “showstoppers”; Con Brio's set packs in about 11 of them.
So when you have a band this goddamn good on stage, the album can be an afterthought. And there's few things more disappointing than a band that tears the roof off the sucker in a club but who releases a passionless recorded facsimile as a memento. I'm not gonna name names, but it's happened to you, too, I'm sure — after an unforgettable night, they leave their number on a scrap piece of paper by the door instead of sending a four-page love letter in the mail.
Paradise is Con Brio's four-page love letter. Expertly produced by Mario Caldato, Jr. (Beastie Boys, Beck, Manu Chao), the album sounds sonically large, rather than a cheap CD-R with a Xerox stuffed inside. It also crackles with soul, be it upbeat (“Liftoff”), anguished (“Hard Times”) or seductive (“Honey”), and for longtime Bay Area music fans, comparisons to early Tower of Power aren't far off.
But this is also a crucial time in America, when fear and anxiety are now literally the law of the land. McCarter combats it directly in the organ-heavy “Free & Brave,” a four-on-the-floor stomper that opens with Trayvon Martin and Martin Luther King, Jr. before earnestly addressing whitewashed history, unemployment and poverty. On “Money,” the struggle turns to work versus freedom: “For the green, givin up on your dream, say: no no no! / You're getting paid, but your souls a slave, say: no no nooo!”