Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Second Time Around - Living Colour

Live at CBGB's Tuesday 12/19/89 (Epic/Legacy)

Technically, this review belongs up above with the new releases since Live at CBGB's Tuesday 12/19/89 hasn't been issued before. But the performance took place 15 years ago and could have been pressed and sold around that time if Living Colour had scored commercial success equal to their critical conquests.

Guitarist Vernon Reid was already a highly regarded instrumentalist and a newsmaker as the founding member of the Black Rock Coalition when he formed Living Colour. With Corey Glover singing, Muzz Skillings on bass, and Will Calhoun playing drums, the band recorded an electrifying debut, Vivid, in 1988, and for a year or two they grabbed attention everywhere. Living Colour had solid support in heavy rock circles where an all-black band was, um, unusual; their jazz and funk influences attracted downtown hipsters and Mick Jagger too, who asked them to open for the Stones when the band toured the United States.

Live captures Living Colour at a time when the excitement was in the air, and if anyone doubts the band's claim to fame, this casually terrific performance answers all questions. They built the set around four tunes from Vivid that were, in varying degrees, deeply personal and politically progressive: "Cult of Personality" (which begins with a sound bite from Malcolm X), "Funny Vibe," "Open Letter (to a Landlord)," and "Middle Man." "Cult of Personality" is loaded up with flashy, over-the-top playing that never undermines the ensemble. Skillings and Calhoun have chops to spare, but in no more than a minute, it's clear that it's Reid's playing – not color and not politics – that made Living Colour exceptional. His guitar is tastefully aggressive and full of surprises that incorporate a bewildering array of influences without being dominated by any of them.

Newcomers to Living Colour probably should start listening with Vivid rather than this album. Fans, on the other hand, should make sure to pick up this disc. The band shared a perspective that was singular and exciting, and made a unique contribution to rock. They didn't change the course of the music, but they certainly added depth and dimension, and they're waiting for you on Live at CBGB's. (J.H. Tompkins)

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