Sunday, August 05, 2018

Living Colour's "Shade"

Swinging more than a little after the pitch here, but when this album dropped last September, I was preoccupied with other things.

Shade is the first album since Mark Growden's St. Judas and Lose Me In the Sand that I'd watched come together over successive live appearances (in this case, July 2013 and October 2014 at The Kessler). When Living Colour came through Oak Cliff in 2013, I went to see them with composer Curtis Heath and engineer-producer Britt Robisheaux, who'd both been spending time with Living Colour guitarist-mastermind Vernon Reid's old Decoding Society bandleader Ronald Shannon Jackson.

It was our sad duty to inform Vernon that Shannon's health was declining, and the titanic drummer-composer would be returning to New York City to undergo treatment for leukemia. But something good came out of it. Back in Staten Island at the end of Living Colour's tour, Reid reached out to everyone Shannon knew in the city, and Shannon's final hospital stay included a great many visitors and reunions. "I can't believe Vernon Reid did that for me," a happy and incredulous Shannon said when he was back in Fort Worth, a few weeks before he passed on October 19. At Shannon's memorial service in Fort Worth, there were two large floral arrangements, one from Reid and one from ex-Decoding society bassist Melvin Gibbs. (Reid, Gibbs, and Living Colour drummer Will Calhoun cut a live-in-studio record under the rubric Zig Zag Power Trio in Woodstock back in June.)

Those Kessler shows were highlighted by two covers, which also serve as thematic signposts on Shade -- an album whose concerns include the passage of time, mortality (the included list of musos who died during the album's making is sobering), and roots. Biggie Smalls' controversial and violent street saga "Who Shot Ya?" -- Living Colour's take on which was originally released on a 2016 mixtape in advance of the album -- took on new meaning in the wake of the August 2014 shooting of Michael Brown by St. Louis police, which occurred just a month after Eric Garner's killing by NYPD. Having watched in horror on my laptop as police fired tear gas canisters into residential neighborhoods in response to community members' protests following Brown's death, it was stirring to hear Corey Glover declaiming "Hands up! Don't shoot" from the Kessler stage -- and the overwhelmingly white, middle-aged audience responding in kind. We couldn't imagine then that the next few years would bring an ever-lengthening litany of police shooting victims, Vegas, Parkland, 3D printable guns, and on and on. Corey being himself, he sings rather than raps, investing the tune with a gospel vibe similar to the extended "testifying" intro he sang before "Open Letter To A Landlord" at the Kessler.

Delta blues legend Robert Johnson's "Preaching Blues" might have seemed out of character for a band of metallic jazz-funk rockers from the hip-hop era -- of which bassist Doug Wimbish, who joined Living Colour in time for 1993's Stain, was an originator, having played in the Sugarhill Records house band -- when they used it to open their 2013 set, but only if one forgot that Reid produced four blues-oriented albums for harmolodic guitar master James "Blood" Ulmer in the '00s, and had planned to do a similar one for Shannon -- whose roughly-sung versions of Jimmy Reed numbers once served as respites in free jazz supergroup Last Exit's raging sets. Living Colour's take on Johnson's classic highlights all four band members' virtuosity over a groove as crushing as history itself. Elsewhere on Shade, "Who's That" reminds us that as a teenage axe-slinger, Reid had his aesthetic formed by Johnny Winter as well as Fripp and McLaughlin, while "Invisible" (shade of Ralph Ellison here?) could be the work of an early '70s blues-rock band like Cactus. Marvin Gaye's "Inner City Blues" -- still sadly on point after 46 years -- serves as a kind of bridge between Biggie and Robert.

Living Colour's lyrics have always reflected the social situation in America at whatever time they were written. Vivid's "Cult of Personality" has seeped back into people's consciousness since the 2016 presidential election, but "Open Letter To A Landlord" predicted this decade's gentrification trend way back in '88. (Who knew when Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing was new that the white "urban pioneer" with the bicycle was the future?) "Funny Vibe" and Time's Up's "Someone Like You" depicted the perils of living while black in a way that's still topical, goddammit, while their 2003 release Collideoscope was as redolent of post-9/11 NYC as both Sonic Youth's Murray Street and Spike's 25th Hour, even when Corey wasn't singing about it overtly.

Shade's originals bespeak boiling-over frustration, but you have to listen closely. The opening "Freedom of Expression (F.O.X.)" sets the scene ("The news you use has been falsified / To use my fear against me inside") before throwing down the gauntlet:

When you have a philosophy or a gospel
I don't care whether it's religious gospel or political gospel
Or economic gospel or a social gospel
If it's not going to do something for you and me right now
To hell with it

"Program" speaks truth even more plainly:

Cops always harass the brothers
They like Clorox bleach
Good for whites, bad for colors
So when they ask to search us
I get nervous
'Cause Mike Brown was shot down
By the people hired to protect and service
Went from the lightning into a dark zone
Millions of dumb people walkin’ around with a smart phone

In troubled and troubling times, part of the artist's task is to bear witness. Our time calls for action, not anthems (although I'll take Time's Up's "Fight the Fight," if forced to choose). Living Colour's sound hasn't changed a lot through their 35-year odyssey from CBGB's to stadiums with the Rolling Stones (Mick Jagger was an early advocate) to a five-year hiatus, from which they emerged to play everywhere from metal fests to cruise boats to small listening rooms like the Kessler and the City Winery chain. I'm glad they're still around.