One of the widely trumpeted breakthrough live bands on the planet last year was the Bay Area soul-funk-psych rock, groove-with-a-message septet Con Brio. The literal translation of the name from Italian is “with vigor.” And that is the philosophical torch that the musicians carried from their embryonic Tuesday night Steppin’ jam sessions at San Francisco’s Madrone Art Bar into the lean, dynamic band’s birth in 2013 and beyond.
While tuning up an organic identity of its own, Con Brio also fans the flames of such incendiary ancestors as James Brown, Sly and the Family Stone, Curtis Mayfield and Michael Jackson, with nods to D’Angelo and Prince.
Animated, charismatic frontman-vocalist Ziek McCarter, age 24, is the main lyricist, and the flashpoint for contagious dancing, splits, cartwheels and backflips. Joining him at the Center for the Arts in Grass Valley Thursday, March 30, are bassist Jonathan Kirchner, drummer Andrew Laubacher, guitarist Benjamin Andrews, horn players Brendan Liu and Marcus Stephens, and keyboardist Patrick Glynn.
Con Brio released the EP “Kiss the Sun” in 2015, and then the full album “Paradise” in July 2016 as the group festival-hopped around the world. “It’s so crazy,” said McCarter during recent phone calls before and after sharing a show with the New Orleans jam band Galactic at Boston’s House of Blues. “The year before I actually set down in my journal some intentions and goals, and it was so ridiculous and amazing to see all of that just happen.”
“We played Outside Lands,” said McCarter. “Lollapalooza. We played Bonnaroo. We played North Sea Jazz Festival in Europe. We played Fuji Rock in Japan. We played in the Bluesfest in Australia. With like Kendrick Lamar and Brian Wilson. We saw so many amazing artists.”
“It changes your perception on life a bit,” said smooth conversationalist McCarter, “and you have to really stay connected to what brought you there. And what brought me there was a passion for music and performing. I just want to protect that so that I can sustain it. So we could be a legacy artist, or legacy band, and our music is timeless. I keep reminding myself this is not some fly-by-night thing that you just so happen to stumble on after moving to the Bay Area. This is something that you’ve been working on since you were a kid. In a very intentional way.”
McCarter traces his first immersion in music back to Houston, Texas, where he woke up from a nap at age 2 and was drawn to the living room stereo speakers where James Brown was getting’ up and doing his thing. “As I grew older I could see the influence of his legacy on artists like Prince and Michael Jackson,” said McCarter, “and even my father telling me stories when he saw James Brown live, and just how powerful a performer he was, and what he stood for in that world at that time, considering the social dynamics and racial dynamics and all that was going on. When he was coming up as an artist, he was a hero for a lot of the people, a lot of the artists that I admire. And you hear his influence all over the place.”
By age 17, McCarter was living in Austin and cultivating his own sound and voice, rapping and singing hooks and making beats. He had spent childhood holidays and summers visiting relatives in San Francisco’s Fillmore District. “Every time we would leave,” said McCarter, “I was always like begging my mom to move. So when I graduated from high school, I was pretty excited to move out there and finally see what it is all about.
In the Bay Area, McCarter eased into the Steppin’ sessions, where he studied the interplay between different instruments and vocalists, and the language of the stage. In 2011, his father was killed under publicly contested circumstances by law enforcement in East Texas. That heartbreak and the Black Lives Matter movement inspired McCarter to pen “Free & Brave.” The song fits readily into the overall narrative of “Paradise,” which addresses the contradictions of modern life, expectations, economic hardship, inequality, healing and love in a way that McCarter hopes will allow others to discover a part of themselves that they haven’t experienced.
“When I moved to the Bay Area,” said McCarter about his father, “he’s really the one who sparked my awareness around the neighborhood that I lived in (the Fillmore) and the rich history. And he told me, ‘Hey, you should learn some Billie Holliday songs, you should learn some jazz numbers, and who you can sing with.’ I didn’t learn jazz numbers, but I did find a band to sing with, and I haven’t stopped since.”
When: 8 p.m., Thursday, March 30
Where: Center for the Arts, 314 W. Main St., Grass Valley
Information: 530-274-8384 ext 14; thecenterforthearts.org/con-brio