They rolled into Central Park in New York dressed for battle. Wearing
camouflage and khaki, Living Colour faced down a hometown crowd for the
first time since their 1995 breakup, and they had a lot to prove.
Although they were on the leading edge of new music between 1984 and the
early '90s, blending guitar-blazing metal with deep-rooted funk, simmering
R&B and experimental jazz, music history has not been terribly kind to them.
Before Korn, Papa Roach or Incubus were around, way back when the elder George Bush was occupying the White House, Living Colour wove together disparate musical styles with political polemic. Sadly, aside from occasional radio spins of their biggest hit,
"Cult of Personality," Living Colour have largely been forgotten.
"Man, you all look be-wil-dered," guitarist and bandleader Vernon Reid said
several songs into the band's set. "I know where you're coming from. If someone had told me two years ago that we were gonna be
getting back together, I'd have said, 'Yo, man, stop frontin' me.' "
And with good reason. As explosive as Living Colour were on disc and
onstage, they were equally emotional behind the scenes, fighting each other
as fiercely as the powers they opposed (racists, corrupt landlords, sadistic
After it was introduced, it took the band another five minutes to start
playing. And the gig was strangely paced, with new, previously unheard songs
interrupting the momentum of catalog hits. Also, the sound mix was pretty
poor. For the first couple of numbers Reid's guitars and Corey Glover's soulful
vocals were barely audible over the throbbing bass and battering drums, and
the audio improved only slightly from there.
To Living Colour's credit, their comeback was as chancy and experimental as their arrival. Instead of presenting a by-the-numbers greatest-hits set, the band went out on a limb, introducing three new songs, two covers and a couple of towering drum solos. Three of
the tunes were from their most poorly received album, Stain, which seemed like
a strange move considering the band omitted crowd-pleasers like "Open Letter
(To a Landlord)," "Desperate People" and "Glamour Boys." Even when Living
Colour dove into standards like "Love Rears Its Ugly Head" and "Middle Man,"
they shook them up by integrating drum'n'bass beats and industrial
embellishments between volleys of kinetic rock.
The confrontational "Elvis Is Dead" was interrupted halfway through with a techno-treated rendition of "Papa Was a Rolling Stone" and a visceral, crunching cover
snippet of Elvis Presley's "Can't Help Falling in Love With You." And judging from the new
songs, it sounds like Living Colour's reunion won't be a mere nostalgia
ride. "Trance" pitted Will Calhoun's tribal beats against a mantra-like rhythm as bassist Doug Wimbish and Reid repeatedly chanted "In a trance, in another world." And "R&D" married Middle Eastern melodies with polyrhythmic beats.
Visually, Living Colour might not be as frenetic as they once were, though they
still put on a vibrant show. Reid, who had his hair styled in two giant
braids, dove into solos with reckless fervor, Wimbish sagely thrummed out
groovin' basslines and Glover paced, pranced, jogged and jumped, proving
why he's been able to land some plum acting jobs over the years (he appeared in Oliver Stone's "Platoon"). During "Cult of Personality," he stormed from one side of the stage to the other, urging the audience to sing the chorus, and at the conclusion he dove over a
six-foot chasm into the sweaty crowd.
The band's encore was as surprising as its main set. First,
Living Colour performed Jimi Hendrix's "Tower of Soul," and the coup de grace
came when they ended with Bruce Springsteen's somber "American Skin (41 Shots)," a song
about Amadou Diallo, a black man who was shot 41 times by New York policemen
when he put a hand in his pocket to show them identification and they
thought he was reaching for a gun. Even though Reid's complex solo sounded
out of place, the song was still trenchant and chilling especially the
climax, in which Calhoun bashed out rounds of rapid but staggered snare
blasts to emulate gunshots. By the end of the song, Glover was in tears, and
while a cynical viewer might credit his method acting abilities for the
display, his shoulders continued to heave with sobs after he left the stage.