Friday, May 3, 2024

Archive Review: Living Colour’s Live From CBGB’s (2005)

Living Colour’s Live From CBGB’s
I remember seeing Living Colour perform during its 1989 tour in support of the band’s debut album. I had seen the band once before, prior to the release of Vivid in 1988, but this 1989 show at the infamous Exit/In club in Nashville would become the stuff of legend. Since I had met them once before and had interviewed both the band’s extraordinary guitarist Vernon Reid and excellent drummer Will Calhoun, my friend Mark S. and myself hung out with the band backstage after the show. Reid and I discussed music; cyberpunk sci-fi writers like Bruce Sterling and William Gibson and horror writer H.P. Lovecraft. The band members were genuinely friendly, intelligent, talented and obviously on their way “up” in the music world…and they put on a hell of a live show.

Living Colour’s Live From CBGB’s

By the time Living Colour would play Nashville again the band would blow up big-time. Vivid would go platinum, selling over a million copies – quite an accomplishment for an African-American hard rock band that every record label in the world passed on. The band was all over MTV at the time with its video for the raging “Cult of Personality” and would subsequently walk off with a pair of Grammy™ awards. The release of Time’s Up in 1990 along with a couple of high profile tours would solidify the band’s superstars-in-the-making status. Unfortunately, the band’s commercial fortunes would quickly diminish and, with only three albums under their collective belts, Living Colour became one of the casualties of grunge and the Seattle scene. The band would break up not long after the 1993 release of Stain.

If any live recording could capture the band’s onstage energy and chemistry, they would have been even bigger stars than they already were. Sadly, the band never released a live album during its initial run, something that might have revived its prospects and found Living Colour a wider audience. Although Live From CBGB’s comes along about a decade-and-a-half too late, it’s definitely a case of “better late than never” for Living Colour fans who have been living with seedy bootleg tapes of live performances for 15 years. This particular show, a homecoming of sorts for the band, was captured live at the legendary CBGB’s in the Bowery in New York City in December 1989, between the releases of Vivid and Time’s Up.

Cult of Personality

From the album’s tracklist and relatively brief hour-long running time, I’m guessing that Live From CBGB’s doesn’t include the band’s entire performance from that night. There are only four songs featured here from Vivid, including the set-opening “Cult of Personality” and the somber “Open Letter To A Landlord.” Almost half of the live album features songs from the yet-to-be-released-at-the-time Time’s Up, the band obviously showcasing songs from its upcoming album. Two new cuts make their debut here while the band’s relentless cover of Bad Brain’s “Sailin’ On” is a hard-to-find obscurity.

Although a lengthier performance might have made for a hardcore two-CD set, Sony chose to release this version so we have to live with it, which isn’t too difficult. The band is red-hot throughout these songs, Reid’s six-string pyrotechnics tearing through the smoke and heat of the club while frontman Corey Glover’s powerful vocals punch through the darkness with fire and passion. Some of the band’s best songs are represented here, from “Information Overload” and “Cult of Personality” to “Funny Vibe” and “Love Rears Its Ugly Head.” Of the two previously unreleased tracks, “Soldier’s Blues” offers some tasty guitar shuffles, Hendrix-inspired riffing and Calhoun’s jazzy drumbeats while “Little Lies,” a tortured ballad spotlighting Glover’s vocals, sounds out of place until it kicks into overdrive.

Overall, the band’s performance on Live from CBGB’s is simply explosive. Reid’s incendiary guitarwork, informed by his avant-garde jazz training, still sounds groundbreaking today; nobody currently playing can match the underrated Reid’s style and innovation. Glover was a soulful vocalist of some range and heart while the rhythm section of bassist Muzz Skillings and drummer Calhoun were one of the finest in rock at the time, providing a solid bedrock for the dueling frontmen.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Unfortunately, no matter how good it is, Live From CBGB’s is unlikely to draw new listeners to the phenomenal, hard rocking Living Colour sound. If this set had been released in 1991 or so, perhaps its impact would have provided the band with a stepping stone to greater things. In 2005, however, with Living Colour considered yesterday’s news by young audiences, a “classic rock” band at best, Live From CBGB’s will appeal mostly to existing fans. Young music lovers wanting to know what all the hype was about could do worse than checking out Living Colour live. (Sony Legacy Records, 2005)

Review originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™, 2005

Also on That Devil Music: Living Colour’s Vivid CD review

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