Soul music

Paradise – Con Brio

 

Release Year: 2016

Rating: 8.5/10

I learned about this funky band when I went to Lollapalooza this year and caught their set. I’ve been singing their praises ever since. Based out of California, Con Brio, which means “with spirit” in Spanish, is a funk/R&B/soul band that are all about loving life and having a good time. They channel this feeling into their funky debut album Paradise. From start to finish the album keeps you going and leaves you with a big smile on your face. After hearing the record, you’ll be convinced Con Brio is the next great band in music.

The album is a funky jam from start to finish. Each song is filled with brassy horns, groovy bass, and hot guitar licks. “Paradise” kicks things off on a slow note. The guitar riff rips into the track inviting listeners on this musical journey. The horns come in one by one to beef up the sound completing the bluesy vibe. Just when you thought it couldn’t get any hotter, Ziek McCarter’s passionate vocals hit you. After one verse you’re ready to fly with him to what he calls paradise. From there, everything is a party. “Liftoff” is the epitome of funky. As soon as the opening note plays, it gets you grooving. It’s so upbeat and energetic, you’re ready to party like it’s a Friday night. And you can’t help but smile as McCarter here sings “Because nothing here can hold our spirits down.”

Even though most of the songs are funky, “You Think This is a Game?” is a bit different. It still has that funky groove and bluesy mood, but McCarter has a spoken word style. The way he raps over the music makes it seem like he’s at a slam poetry contest. It’s a bit jarring, especially when all the music clashes at the end, but it’s an interesting sonic experiment. Aside from getting down and grooving to the beat, Con Brio’s music is uplifting. Many of their songs spout positive messages about loving yourself and loving each other, something that’s easy to forget during these times.

Free & Brave” offers a comment on society and the Black Lives Matter movement. The opening verse references the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Martin Luther King, making you think it’s going to be a negative outlook on the world. Instead, Con Brio uses the song to say people have to keep going despite these tragic events. The message of the entire song is though the world gets shitty, we’re still free and in control of our destiny. We still have to believe that things will get better. The band gets harder and heavier on “Hard Times.” This fusion of rock and funk has a message of sticking together and reaching out to one another to get through hard times. It’s a great reminder that we still need each other even when everything looks bleak. It’s a reminder that we don’t have to go through this alone.

Another song with an optimistic message and my personal favorite is “Money.” Not only is it upbeat, funky, and made for dancing, it’s about not letting money rule you. It’s so easy to get wrapped up in work and focusing on making money to live. With this song McCarter reminds us it’s not all about work; we need play time too. He also sings “When you’re stretched out, all stressed out/Knowin somethin ain’t right, and you’re left out/Can’t let that 9-5, put a seatbelt on my mind.” It’s a great message to those who aren’t satisfied with working any old job and want to follow their dreams for the career they really want. Money is necessary, but we don’t have to let it take us over as Con Brio reminds us.

When they’re not grooving or spouting good life messages, Con Brio are romancing listeners with their sexy slow jams. “My Love” is a soulful gem made for romantic nights. Though it’s a little too slow for my tastes, it’s a good song and doesn’t hold back on the funky music. The same goes for the mid-tempo “No Limits,” which is slinky and slick. Both songs do a great job showing off McCarter’s vocals. There’s no doubt he’ll bring up comparisons to Michael Jackson, but his voice is still powerful enough to give you chills. And when he busts out the falsetto, it’s enough to make you swoon. He has one of those voices where when he’s feeling a song, he goes all the way making you screaming “Sing it, baby!” “Honey” is another soft, mid-tempo jam where McCarter spreads the love. The acoustic guitar and McCarter’s gentles vocals make the song relaxing and soothing. Some lyrics like “You can be such a busy bee, but save a little honey for me/I can be such a busy bee, but I’ll save my honey for thee/We can both be the busy bee and save a lil honey while we,” are kind of cheesy, but they’re forgivable. It’s still a sweet, sentimental track.

If you need an album to kick up your feet and unwind to, then this is it. Every one of Con Brio’s songs are filled with positive messages about loving life, yourself, and not letting the small stuff get you down. The entire album is full of optimistic messages, which we all need every now and then. The music is fun, upbeat, and will keep you dancing. Something about their music is so infectious even if you’re not the biggest fan of funk and soul. With their passionate playing and Ziek McCarter’s seductive, soaring vocals the band stand out as one of a kind. Put on Paradise when you need a pick me up or just want to dance. Let the music wash over you and let Con Brio’s songs take you to your own version of paradise.

Discovering new bands, making friends, and lots of rain: My first ever Lollapalooza

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Photo by Ashley P.

I consider myself a music fanatic. I need to hear music every day and I’m invested in the music world daily thanks to my writing. So, some may consider it a little weird I’ve never been to Lollapalooza despite living in Chicago all my life. Several things have kept me away from the iconic event, but it comes down to money. It’s also intimidating. I never considered myself a festival version. I have enough trouble with people at concerts. The thought of attending something with thousands of people in attendance was scary. Not to mention I’m also claustrophobic. But when I was asked to cover Friday by New City, I decided it was time to step out of my comfort zone and see what I’ve been missing out on all these years.

Friday’s big headliner was Radiohead, but since I already had plans for that night, I had to miss them. It’s fine since I’m not a big fan of them anyway. I showed up at Grant Park early and waited for the gates to open. I couldn’t help but get excited seeing the looming “Lollapalooza 25 Years” sign in the distance. After waiting for the gates to open, we had to wait in the security line, which wasn’t so bad. Once I was cleared, I wandered around the festival grounds a little lost. I saw the different shops and stalls, none of them particularly interesting, but I was most excited to see beautiful Buckingham Fountain up close. It’s something I’ve seen in the car, but never up close. I probably looked like a tourist taking pictures of the landmark, but I didn’t care. I actually enjoyed walking around in the morning. There were a good number of people, but nothing compared to what it would be only a few hours later.

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Photo by Ashley P.

Since I wasn’t seeing Radiohead, I had no idea who to check out first. I didn’t most of the artists who were playing during the day. After doing some research I picked out a few bands, the first being Con Brio. I got turned around a few times looking for the Lakeshore stage, but I managed to find it. I got a good spot close to the stage and waited. While waiting I actually met some nice people and we started chatting. I loved meeting new people with similar interests because music brings people together. But when it comes to concerts, you only connect with the person you came with. Very few people strike up conversations with others anymore and it’s a shame. I glad I finally got to experience it, even if it was only for an hour.

It was time for Con Brio and let me say this: they are fucking amazing. They’re a soul/R&B/pop band from California and they probably had the most energetic set of the day. As soon as they opened with “Paradise” there was non-stop dancing. I loved that everyone on stage, from the guitarist to the saxophone player, was dancing their asses off. They all had a great stage presence pumping up the crowd, and actually being excited about playing, but you couldn’t take your eyes off frontman Ziek McCarter. Everyone in the band is insanely talented, but he carries most of the show. He’s Bruno Mars, Michael Jackson, James Brown, and Jackie Wilson rolled up in one. He not only has serious vocal chops, he has the sickest dance moves. He shuffled across stage, shimmied and gyrated uncontrollably, and had perfect spins. He couldn’t stand still for a minute. It was hard not to smile seeing him move like that.

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Photo by Ashley P.

Their set was nothing but a huge party. As they kept playing, more and more people pushed closer to the stage to catch a glimpse of McCarter. There were a few slow jams, but for the most part, it was non-stop dancing. What I loved most about their songs like “Money” and “Liftoff” is they were full of positive messages, something the world desperately needs right now. It’s clear Con Brio wants to make people happy with their upbeat, vibrant music. It didn’t take long for people to start singing along even though they didn’t know the words two minutes before. They even did a cover of “It’s a Man’s Man World,” but switched it at the end to become “This is a woman’s world.” That made me love McCarter even more. At the end of their set, McCarter bid farewell by pulling off three flawless backflips getting huge praise from the crowd. As everyone left the stage, it became clear we witnessed something great. Everyone who decided to get hammered early clearly missed out. It was so good me and the guy next to me high-fived three times.

After Con Brio and saying goodbye to my new friend, I planned to hit up the BMI stage, but a soulful voice caught my ear. I sauntered to the Bud Light stage to hear Lewis Del Mar, another act I knew nothing about. Though I didn’t like them as much as Con Brio, I did like Danny Miller’s vocals. They were powerful and passionate. Every word hit like he was making a call to arms for a cause. Lewis Del Mar is a folk-pop duo and I recommend checking them out. They won’t get you pumped up or excited like Con Brio, but they have a unique sound that’s worth a listen. I stayed for two songs and left for the BMI stage to catch some of Horse Thief‘s set. They weren’t bad, but a little too soft and dull for my tastes. I dipped out earlier to walk around and see some of the random stands.

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Photo by Ashley Perez

There were stalls from Pepsi, Samsung, and Toyota, but none were that interesting. Samsung had a VR experience booth, but I wasn’t sure if you had to pay for it or not. And I didn’t feel like standing in the lengthy line. I did manage to score some from popcorn from Garrett’s, which was amazing. I would’ve paid for it, but free is always the right price. Thanks to the caramel and cheese blend I was ready to head back to the Lakeshore stage to catch some of Saint Motel’s set.

Saint Motel is another band I looked up before the festival and their bouncy, upbeat sound convinced me to check them out. And it seems like I wasn’t wrong. I mean the frontman’s keyboard was shaped like a tiger. What more do you want? When I got to the stage, it was already packed with tons of people. I stood on the sidelines to catch the action instead of pushing to the front. All their songs were energetic, light, and just fun. The crowd was obviously having a good time as they freaked out for every song they played. Though they weren’t my favorite act of the day, I still enjoyed the happy-go-lucky nature of their set. Plus, they did a slick cover of Tom Jones’ “She’s a Lady,” which was weird, but delightful.

I left Saint Motel’s set early to get a good spot for The Struts. I knew very little about this band, but when I heard songs like “Put Your Money on Me” and “Kiss This” I knew they were going to have a killer performance. And I was right. They had a ton of energy, sounded great, and Luke Spiller is my new favorite frontman. A combination of Freddie Mercury and Mick Jagger, he knew how to work the crowd. He easily won everyone over with his insane vocal range, wild moves, and sexy demeanor. Think of a stereotypical 70’s era rockstar and you’ve got Spiller. It was hard not to be infected with his charisma, which is why everyone got down on the floor when he commanded them too. It was thrilling to jump in unison with thousands of other people. There were also great call and response sections where he would scream out “B-b-b-b-b-baby!” and wait for the crowd to sing it back. Plus, he pulled off some sweet costume changes.

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Photo by Ashley P.

What makes songs like “Could Have Been Me” and “Dirty Sexy Money” so infectious is it brings fun back in rock music. The Struts aren’t trying to be introspective or serious; they’re just having a good time. It’s very party-esque, carefree music that just makes you feel good. Their set was a blast and I am now a Struts fan. I was originally torn between seeing them and Modern Baseball. While the latter band sounds good, I think The Struts were far more fun.

Right as their set ended, the sky opened and it rain. Sweet, glorious rain! My entire body was shouting at me to go home. Before I left, I decided to wander around parts of the festival I hadn’t been yet. Leaving the Samsung stage I heard the start of MØ‘s set. I don’t really have a reaction to it since I don’t care for her music. I stopped by the BMI stage once more and caught a bit of Muddy Magnolias. From what I could hear, they sounded pretty good. But this area of the festival seemed largely ignored. I could barely see them on stage since there was no lighting. The sound was also pretty bad. I didn’t stay very long, but someone said they liked my style and gave me a flower! It was a random, yet cool moment.

I missed whoever was on the Pepsi and decided to walk around the Lolla Time Warp. It was lame. It was an empty section of the park with pictures of notable headliners and some old gig posters. It would’ve been cool to have something interactive, like actual videos or anything aside from pictures. Anything else would’ve been better to commemorate 25 years than this. None of the other shops or booths were interesting and the FYE pop-up was over priced.

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I headed to Perry’s stage just to see what was going on. What a mistake. It was filled with people everywhere. I could barely move even though I was all the way in the back nowhere near the crowd or the stage. I stood there for a few minutes watching Audien – a pretty standard DJ. But what was freaky were people running to the stage right before the drop. I left before I got trampled.

Tired and achy, I made my way towards the festival gates. I stopped by Buckingham fountain for one more picture and slowly lurched on. There were far more people at this time; they were preparing for the headliners after all. I reached the exit and said bye to Lolla. My first Lolla was a success. I conquered a strange fear; the festival no longer seemed so intimidating. I only wish the booths were more interesting. Riot Fest had some cool exhibits and booths that you didn’t have to pay for. Lolla felt like they only had food and beer, which I wasn’t interested in. I still had a great time, though. There’s something exhilarating about walking around the grounds hearing music drifting through the air. I was happy to be going home; I wanted to take a shower. But part of me wanted to stick around and see what other low key were playing. I wanted to meet more people, maybe make some new friends. But there’s always next year.

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Photo by Ashley P.

H2O – Hall and Oates

Release Year: 1982

Rating: 7.5/10

Hall and Oates are a musical act I’ve grown to love over the years. I’ve always liked their hit singles, but I’ve grown to respect their contributions to music. And lately, I’ve been in a Hall and Oates mood. In the past two weeks, I watched all their videos online, saw countless interviews, and watched their Behind the Music special. I’ve covered Big Bam Boom, probably their biggest album, already so I wanted to look at another one of their successful records. This time, let’s look at the duo’s eleventh album H2O.

The album opens with one of their best singles “Maneater.” That slick opening beat, hot sax riff, and lyrics about a woman whose dangerous yet tempting, makes this one of their coolest songs. It’s dangerous yet sensual as the music slowly builds up and Hall begins singing about this “maneater.” It’s pop meshed with soul for that “Motown groove” making it so irresistible. Though the song sounds like it’s about a vicious woman, the duo said it was inspired by the greed and lust of New York in the 80’s. Years later, it’s still one of their best songs and a great example of what makes the duo so talented.

The next track “Crime Pays” is kind of weird, but fun to listen to. It’s pretty much their disco song. It has a funky groove, glistening keys, and an upbeat dance vibe that’s meant to get you moving. The music is the most notable thing about the song. It’s not as memorable or as interesting as the other tracks, but it still puts you in a good mood. It’s a quirky moment from the duo before they go back to laying out the catchy, ear worm jams. While “Guessing Games” and “Delayed Reaction” aren’t bad, they’re kind of typical for the band. Both are pretty straightforward pop songs, with the latter having a catchier, if not, simpler hook. The former is kind of dull. These songs don’t cause much of a reaction; maybe just a subtle nod of the head at times.

Daryl Hall constantly talks about growing up in Philadelphia and being influenced by soul and R&B music. These influences come out best on this album, especially on tracks like “Art of Heartbreak.” Though the song is about being a heartbreaker, the song sounds sleek and sexy with the opening dirty blues riff and Hall’s crooning vocals. For an extra air of cool, the hot sax makes a return for a sensuous groove. It’s an underrated Hall and Oates gem that lets them get in touch with the soul sound that launched their career. The R&B sound returns on the lukewarm “Open All Night.” It’s not a terrible song, but compared to the other tracks it doesn’t stand out. It’s a slow song about finding out a lover’s infidelity. It’s not bad, just a bit generic.

The album also includes hits “One on One” and “Family Man.” The former takes a bit to grow on you, but once it does, it never lets go. The soothing opening keys and Hall’s falsetto makes it sound like a lounge song from the 70s. And if you’re not used to Hall hitting those high notes, it comes off a little weird, but soon enough you’ll be singing “Whoooa, one on one/I wanna play that game tonight/One on one I know” with him. It’s a slow jam about getting some face time with your lover. To make sure you get in the mood, the sax comes in during the bridge adding a suave vibe to the song. It’s a Hall and Oates classic that never seems to get much attention.

Family Man” is actually a Mike Oldfield cover about a man being proposition by a prostitute. He resists by screaming “Leave me alone/I’m a family man!” The song has a rock vibe with beefy guitars with some weird muted music making it sound like they’re in the middle of a jungle for a moment of the song. What makes the Hall and Oates version stand out is how Hall’s vocals get more intense near the end, showing how this “family man” is about to lose it. And it has a hook that lodges itself in your head. I woke up one day with the hook repeating in my head. No joke.

Though the album is mostly solid, there are some real stinkers. And unfortunately, they’re both written by John Oates. “Italian Girls” is a throwaway track filled with Italian stereotypes while Oates sings “Where are the Italian girls?” It’s so upbeat and generic it almost plays like a comedy song from the 80s. Instead, it’s stuck on the tail end of the album bringing down the second half. The following track “At Tension” doesn’t sound cheesy, but it’s so unfitting. Oates’ back on vocals singing about war and the military. It’s out of place because most of the songs are about relationships. It’s also drawn out, slow, and boring making it a song you can’t wait to be over. Luckily, the end of the album is saved by the catchy slow jam, “Go Solo,” which finds Hall rightfully back on vocal duty.

H2O is just one of the numerous hit albums for this duo. Though it’s not as upbeat and fun as Big Bam Boom, it’s a solid record. Most of the songs are memorable and have that classic Hall and Oates touch that makes their music so irresistible. What I appreciate about the record is how it shows off more of their soul and R&B influences, which isn’t always easy to hear on tracks like “Out of Touch.” And if you needed proof that Daryl Hall is a stellar vocalist look no further than this album. He has an impressive range and his soulful crooning is like no other. There’s some filler along with flat out bad songs, but the album is enjoyable. If you have a Hall and Oates that needs scratching, this album will be your satisfaction.