SHOW REVIEW + GALLERY: Con Brio + Sammy Rae & The Friends in Chicago, IL
Scroll to the bottom to see Teddy’s photos from the gig!
Sammy Rae has got the groove, and so do all their Friends. We’re at Metro Chicago at a rambunctiously sold out show on Friday night and everyone believes they can dance. Tonight, all of us are close enough to be Sammy Rae’s friends.
Before the Friends hit the stage, Con Brio opened the evening with a set so deliciously soulful that they made all insecurities about dancing in public fade away. If you wanted to sway, you suddenly had rhythm. If you wanted to wail and snap your fingers, you weren’t the only one. Led by newly minted vocalist Sarah Clarke, the California-based soul fusion band boasted a two-piece horn section (sax and trumpet) that riffed back and forth with guitar, bass, and new member AJ McKinley on vocoder/keys.
Although the band announced in January that two new members would be replacing longtime vocalist Ziek McCarter and keys player Patrick Glynn, Con Brio took no time at all to show the crowd they still had a polished, full sound and an electric stage presence despite the new lineup. In “Seasons,” Con Brio’s latest release, Clarke delivered this message with a poignant, “When the seasons change/we’ll never grow apart,” punctuated by horn and string harmonies.
This is a band that lives up to its name (meaning “with vigor” in Italian). In “Kiss the Sun,” the rhythm section took its sweet time, stretching and suspending tempo back and forth to elicit slow dancing and shut eyes throughout the crowd. Each member traded energy and attention constantly in the skillful tradition of southern jazz. Halfway through the song, Marcus Stephens’ sax solo bent pitch as easily as rubber on a hot summer day, and when the band transitioned directly into a cover of Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun,” Benjamin Andrews on guitar and Andrew Laubacher on drums took the reins in a funk-rock remix reminiscent of the Alabama Shakes. The only pace in the world is the one Con Brio sets in the moment, and we all follow.
When Sammy Rae finally runs on stage, she looks out and paces for a good minute in disbelief at the thousand or so cheering back at her: hand outstretched and mouth open in delighted shock before hitting the keys in “The Feeling.” There is no shutter speed on Earth that can capture their movements after this one stationery moment on stage. Soon enough, the rest of the Friends join them for “Follow Me Like the Moon,” exploding into their positions as two saxophonists, one guitarist, one bassist, one percussionist, and one keys player.*
What comes next is a series of high kicks, low squats, jumps, and backbends from lead singer Sammy Rae, whose fun is irrepressible and infectious. One second, they’re center stage and performing vocal acrobatics as the bassist echoes her wildly alternating intervals. Another, they’ve made way for the dueling saxophones and are jamming stage left, stank face on, with the keys player. This is a band that has mastery not only over musicianship but also over community and the sharing of love.
During “Talk it Up,” Sammy Rae slowly drops to one knee and lowers their hand so that all the Friends get on the floor and the energy changes. For a little while, it isn’t the band and the adoring fans. It’s a bunch of friends on a Friday night who are all crouched together and having a good time. Smiling, she sing-asks, “Isn’t it great to be in a safe space with your friends in Chicago?” We stay here like this, hushed and wide-eyed at this unexpected quiet time in the middle of a vivacious set, until the music builds again and we’re back to jumping with the band.
It is a mindful choice that hearkens back to Sarah Clarke’s small speech at the end of Con Brio’s set: “Always take time to take care of you. 2022 is the year of self care. And the year after that. And the year after that.”
The 7-piece jazz-folk fusion collective operates under three rules that Sammy Rae outlined at the beginning of “Whatever We Feel”: always be kind to others, always be kind to yourself, and do whatever you feel. Whether it’s on banjo, on sax, or with nothing but voices and bodies on stage, Sammy Rae & the Friends embody the joy of being surrounded by your community when, a year ago, you thought you may never be able to again. Tonight, Sammy Rae sings “Kick it to Me” and we all remember that our burdens are a little easier to carry when we share them with our friends: “Oh, kick it to me / I could make it better for ya / Make it better / It’s all better.”
* Kellon Reese & Max Zooi (saxophones), Will Leet (guitar), James Quinlan (bass), C-Bass Chiriboga (percussion), Debbie Tjong (keys)