Friday, April 12, 2013

Which Way to America?

Shortly after I arrived at the Paradise last Friday for the sold-out Living Colour show, I did a quick "check in" on Facebook and one of my friends lamented about how the mighty had fallen, since the band had opened for the Rolling Stones in football stadiums back in '89. I didn't argue the point then, but I will now: Literally hundreds of bands have opened for the Stones over the last 50 years, but that didn't make them mighty. I'd say Living Colour's peak in popularity was in that period of 1988-1991, when they were regularly on the radio and TV with their first two albums, but they were never a huge act. The band was unfairly pegged as a black hard rock band because of the massive success of "Cult of Personality" from their 1988 debut Vivid, but if you listen to any of their releases, you'd know that they never felt the need to confine themselves to one genre. You could find plenty of heavy rock and mind-blowing guitar solos, but they also were adept at working funk, hip hop, jazz, soul, reggae and anything else they damn well felt like into the mix.

The band split up in '95 and reformed five years later, releasing two decent albums, but stayed pretty low-key until embarking on their current tour marking the 25th anniversary of Vivid. I caught them twice on the Time's Up tour in 1990 and then again in '93 at the Orpheum on the Stain tour, so I jumped on the chance to see them at a small venue like the 'Dise. The club was full of folks who were getting their early '90s rock fix, including the dude in an Elvis wig and shades hoping the band would play "Elvis is Dead" (they didn't).

Certainly the band's look was different this time around: If you remember frontman Corey Glover for the long dreads and Body Glove wetsuit he used to wear in the early days of the band, you wouldn't recognize him now, sporting a vest, tie over a dress shirt and a cap over short gray hair. (Late in the show, he remarked, "I know who we look like...Mumford and Sons," noting that guitarist Vernon Reid and bassist Doug Wimbish were similarly attired. Wimbish retorted: "More like Sanford and Son.") But if you closed your eyes, Glover hit every note he did back in the day, and Reid was still ripping lightning fast leads like it was nothing. Wimbish, the band's second bassist (Muzz Skillings played on the first two records), is a monster on the four-string and drummer Will Calhoun, who attended Berklee College of Music in Boston, still hits as hard as he ever did.

The band started off with a slow-burning cover of Robert Johnson's "Preachin' Blues" before launching into "Cult of Personality," their biggest song (which in recent years was introduced to a new generation of fans courtesy of the WWE's CM Punk, who uses it as his entrance song. As a matter, a few nights after this show, the band played the song live at Wrestlemania 29). Working their way through the rest of their debut, Living Colour showcased its diversity of sound: "I Want to Know" was a pure pop, "Middle Man" and "Desperate People" were heavy rockers (featuring some ridiculously awesome Reid solos), and Glover launched into a terrific take on "Amazing Grace" before going into the soulful, angry "Open Letter (to a Landlord)."

Flavor Flav and Chuck D weren't around to reprise their cameos on "Funny Vibe," but the song resonated nonetheless. The band's cover of Talking Heads' "Memories Can't Wait" was a scorcher, before the mellower vibe of "Broken Hearts" and the poppy "Glamour Boys." The set closed with the call-and-response of "What's Your Favorite Color? (Theme Song)" and "Which Way to America?" The band left the stage except for Calhoun, who used the intervening five minutes before the encore to play a drum solo.

For the second set, the band paid tribute to the 20th anniversary of its album Stain, which compared to its predecessors was darker and angrier sounding, with three songs: "Bi," "Ignorance is Bliss" and "Leave It Alone." (The album was lost amid the Seattle grungesplosion in '93, but it featured industrial sounds that were probably ahead of the curve a bit for its audience.) The night ended with two from 1990's Time's Up, the sardonic "Love Rears Its Ugly Head" and the thrashy title track, on which Reid and Wimbish galloped through breakneck time changes, before closing with a take on James Brown's "Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine."

Feeling the love from the audience, the band members spent about five minutes on stage, shaking hands and sharing thanks. Living Colour may be past its prime in terms of popularity, but there's no denying the band can still deliver the goods.

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