The 10 Best Bay Area Albums of 2016: Con Brio, 'Paradise'

Con Brio (Celeste Lindahl)

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!”

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This is no solitary journey. To paraphrase McCarter, he's not quite sure how long the fight is, but he knows he can't do it alone. He's got an incendiary band. He's got crowds around the globe. And throughout Paradise, he seduces from every angle, angling for more recruits on a sweat-drenched mission of love and unity. That's about all you can ask of an album.

[Watch Con Brio perform "Living for the City" on the Golden Gate Bridge while KQED Arts' cameras roll here.]

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Previously:
David Last and Cherushii, ‘Plasma Plex’
Kamaiyah, 'A Good Night in the Ghetto'
Musk, ‘Musk 2: The Second Skumming’
CCR Headcleaner, 'Tear Down the Wall'
Caleborate, '1993'
E-40, 'The D-Boy Diaries Books 1 &2'
Fantastic Negrito, 'The Last Days of Oakland'
Thao & The Get Down Stay Down, 'A Man Alive'
Jay Som, 'Turn Into'

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