It was one of the most dramatic moments I’ve seen in a concert venue for a while. Corey Glover threw his microphone to the stage behind him. Dressed in a gold and black Versace lookalike suit and hat combo that only someone of his confidence could pull off, he walked to the very lip of the stage.
It turns out Glover didn’t need the microphone in any event. He launched into the a capella introduction, moving into a gospel rubato, stretching it out for a good couple of minutes. It was hairs on the back of the neck time. His voice carried over the initial silence of concert hall before being joined by shouts of encouragement. Vernon Reid quietly reinstated the microphone behind him and Glover turned around to pick up the rest of the song. The whole performance was ferociously inspiring.
I’m not often inspired to record things on my phone but this immediately felt special and different so here it is on the ol’ YT. Glover was testifying and boy, it was hitting home.
Vernon Reid had already spoken about the continued relevance of “Open Letter (to a Landlord)” to his home neighbourhood of Brooklyn but when considered in the context of the nearby charred remains of Grenfell tower, the song took on a special and wider resonance and poignancy.
Last month there was a fire
I saw seven children die
You sent flowers to their family
But your sympathy’s a lie
Cause every building that you burn
Is more blood money that you earn
We are forced to relocate
From the pain that you create
Here’s a previous more professionally recorded performance that gives a feel for the relevance of a song recorded almost 30 years ago:
I last saw Living Colour live back in Wolverhampton in 1991. At the time there was a certain audience in America that saw four black guys playing rock music was at best weird and at worst, plain wrong. I never detected that as an issue in the UK where the colour of an artist’s skin was never linked to the race of their audience. Witness the blues boom, Motown or soul in the 60s, funk, ska and reggae in the 70s and hip hop beyond then – skin tone is just not something that British audiences see as being of relevance.
Therefore, in the USA Living Colour were seen as trail blazers, whereas in the UK they were just accepted as being a very good band.
This tour comes on the back of 2017’s new LP, “Shade”. Well, I say new. The LP has taken 6 years since recording to see the light of day. Originally scheduled for release in 2014, after an already lengthy 3 year gestation, it finally emerged in September. The delays were due to the usual music business stuff – issues with managers, labels, licensing etc. Back in the 70s, six years would seem like an eternity – it’s the period between David Bowie’s “Low” and “Hunky Dory” or alternatively all of the Beatles LPs to give some idea of the accelerated speed of musical progress back in that era.
Change doesn’t happen in quite so speedy a manner these days. That is not to suggest for a second that “Shade” isn’t a very good album. It doesn’t deviate significantly from the band’s core sound but does update it to reflect some of today’s contemporary influences. It includes the band’s usual smattering of interesting cover versions. After taking on Talking Heads, Pere Ubu and Al Green in their earlier career, “Shade” features a ferocious take on Robert Johnson’s “Preachin’ Blues”, a sideways look at the Notorious B.I.G.’s “Who Shot Ya?”particularly pertinent given the state of Black America at present and finally a faithful version of Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues”.
Their version of “Who Shot Ya?” bears closer consideration. Originally perceived to contribute to the fuelling of the East Coast/West Coast rivalry of the 90s, Living Colour reclaim it as an anti-gun/anti-police protest. Recent events in Las Vegas regarding the detention of Seattle Seahawks’ Michael Bennett and the mass shooting at the Mandalay Bay Hotel, it is clear that responsible conversations need to be had – kudos for Living Colour for pushing the narrative.
One of the significant reasons that I’ve enjoyed Living Colour’s music over the years is the other lives that the members have and what it brings to the band’s music. Guitarist Vernon Reid comes from the New York avant-garde arts scene, playing with such jazz greats as David Torn, Donald Byrd and Bill Frisell. He has an extraordinary knowledge of scales and in particular, “This Is The Life” gave him room to stretch out. Will Calhoun is an established jazz drummer, having recorded tribute albums to the great Elvin Jones, fundamental to John Coltrane and McCoy Tyner’s classic output in the 60s. Doug Wimbish has played bass with Tackhead, the experimental cross genre group whose Adrian Sherwood got a mention in dispatches from Vernon on the evening. Corey Glover has combined his musical career with acting, having appeared in Oliver Stone’s “Platoon” and played Judas Iscariot in “Jesus Christ Superstar”. His theatricality was evident last night, constantly playing to the gallery.
Reid made the point that the new album was partly an exercise to reforge the link between hard rock and the blues. At times, Cream came to mind as the primary musical influence, which given Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker’s multifaceted musical background is a pretty apposite comparison. The opening version of “Preachin’ Blues” took the song in the same direction as Cream took Johnson’s “Cross Road Blues”. I would have loved to hear the straight ahead “Who’s That” backed up by a brass section and Hammond organ as it is on record.
It made for a very immediate evening with the focus on direct crowd pleasers, rather than some of their more diverse and challenging work, such as that on the “Time’s Up” LP of 1990. On reflection, this was probably the right setlist for the evening as a celebration of their return to the UK. This resonated on a couple of levels. Firstly, Reid in particular expressed his debt to British UK influences. This was amplified by London being the place of birth for Reid and he was musing on Twitter earlier in the day as to whether his life would have taken the same musical path if he remained in Britain.
The band were visibly touched at the reaction that they received during this show and the whole of the UK tour. Reid thanked one particular fan who had travelled from Houston to accompany the band. The show ended with Glover at the back of the audience singing back to his colleagues on stage. It was a true showing of musical community.
At a time when the dispossessed and the vulnerable are still exposed to a lack of duty of care from their leaders, it seems that bands like Living Colour are still vital. That they are African Americans adds weight to what they stand for in the light of Charlottesville and their president’s desire to prevent the NFL’s members exercising the first amendment in peaceful protest.
In a sense, it is depressing we still need them, but the world is a better place for having them around.