Thursday, December 13
Living Colour formed in New York in the mid-80s and across the late-1980s and into the mid-1990s they achieved their biggest fame with an impressive run of albums that started in 1988 with debut, Vivid and rolled through 1990’s Time’s Up and 1993’s Stain. From there thee was a break-up, and a reformation – the classic crew has been back together for a while now and it’s not just about throwing out the hits in a reunion setting – there have been great new albums in 2003, 2009 and last year with Shade. There have been live sets and side-projects and the band members, virtuoso players all, have continued with music in various settings in and around their time as Living Colour.
The chance to see them live was something that seemed lost to me – their early 1990s Wellington show is talked about in much the same way as the Helmet/Beastie Boys double bill and one or two other key gigs. You hate to hear about how great it was if you were not there, at the same time the thrill of having a wonderful band described so glowingly is something you do not want to shut down.
No gig-envy for me this time though – I went along to see Living Colour in late 2018 – and, yes, I wondered for a split-second, if it would be up to much. Seeing Will Calhoun’s enormous drum-kit, its cymbals hanging down from high above, was reassuring enough. And then the gig started – and it was so much better than I might have figured.
Look, I loved Living Colour. They were very important to me – but only for a few years. Through that though I continued to follow the work of Calhoun, Vernon Reid (guitars) and Doug Wimbish (bass) and I was thrilled to hear that the ‘comeback’ albums had fight and grit to them, weren’t just trace-arounds of that earlier, vital sound.
Living Colour presented so much – energy and politics, the music a mad amalgam of hip-hop and funk and punk and metal. It was Bad Brains and Talking Heads and Faith No More all swirling. And it was so much more besides.
But the first point to note about their 2018 show is that frontman, Corey Glover, was quite possibly the MVP on the night. You could make a case for him as the “weakest” member perhaps; the Roger Daltrey of the group; lead-singer giving it his all but working in front of three virtuoso instrumentalists. Well, sure, there’s still that on some level, those dynamics haven’t changed but Glover’s voice was incredible. He was the star so often, whether tearing through the electric-charge of Desperate People, the powerful new songs (Freedom of Expression, Come On) or leading the crowd in a sing-song across the lovely melody and sentiment of Living Colour’s one true ballad, Open Letter (To A Landlord).
Of course Wimbish was incredible and got the chance to shine with a bass solo that saw him looping a melody and layering up song parts (Swirl) rather than merely showing off chops.
And Vernon Reid, the thinking man’s shredder, showed that if he came, in any way, from Eddie Van Halen, he’s always thinking Sonny Sharrock. Reid’s fluidity and skill, his overt musicality and his philosophy is the guiding component of this band, always has been.
And when he got to sink down into that riff that sets up and punctuates Cult of Personality, or chipped away at the clipped funk-lite pop of their other massive hit, Glamour Boys, he was the star of the show too. For sure.
If anyone was sold short by this particular performance it was Will Calhoun; the mix, overall was too quiet, and the drums were lost, buried. Though he did get to show-off with a solo that involved some electronic percussion and was, again, not just about technique and boasting; was actually musical.
Vivid served up plenty of highlights of course, including the band’s faithful, wonderful rendition of early Talking Heads deep cut, Memories Can’t Wait. But we got to hear Time’s Up/What’s Your Favourite Colour, Love Rears Its Ugly Head and an awesome cover of Blow Up The Outside World among other highlights.
It was an incredible display of skills and songs from a band still vital, still thrilling, still worthy. It was, then, far better than I expected; the crowd not only into it, but respectful, passionate. Singing along with gusto, anticipating song selections, awe-struck by the tight turnarounds and dazzling playing.
I just wish it could have been a touch louder. That’s a very small complaint though. And so often it’s the thing you wish for in a gig: “if only it could have been a bit quieter”. Not much to complain about then. One of the very best shows I’ve seen in a long while.