Creative Loafing

The crowd at this Brooklyn listening party bobs its collective head and sways as best it can, given the notable lack of wiggle room. Up front, the four men on stage make what they do look effortless; they use a guitar, a bass, drums and vocals to create a comfortable vibe one moment, and coiling power crashes through the walls the next. After finishing the first song, “Burned Bridges,” the lead singer winks at us.

“Yeah, we're still loud," he says.

The crowd claps, hoots and whistles. It's a devoted group of friends, family and even press that has gathered together to witness a live performance of Living Colour's studio album, The Chair in the Doorway—its first in six years. Many of these fans are here because they know that this is the black band with a place firmly rooted in rock's canon.

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Living Colour—the post-Jimi Hendrix quartet of Vernon Reid, Corey Glover, Will Calhoun, and first Muzz Skillings, but now Doug Wimbish—shattered the color barrier in rock music. It was Living Colour that broke into the mainstream consciousness and brought the term “black rock” to prominence. The members of this band have been making music for over two decades, both individually and as a group.

“When they play together, I’ll put them onstage with anybody, in any genre of music,” says cultural critic and longtime friend Greg Tate who, along with Reid and artist manager Konda Mason, co-founded the Black Rock Coalition. “It’s literally like the Coltrane band”—the Classic Quartet of Coltrane, Elvin Jones, McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison—“is playing rock. Cats on that level. This is one of the great bands in terms of a rhythm section and a soloist. It’s pretty undeniable. Awe-inspiring really. [Bad] Brains had that. So did [Led] Zeppelin. This is one of the great rock rhythm sections, and they will stomp ya ass.”

The vitality that’s apparent in both this performance and in the new album, which came out on Sept. 15, was the result of some soul searching on the band’s part. “Part of it is that it’s 20-plus years on. And we’re not the newest flavor on the block,” says guitarist Reid. “And we don’t know if we run our flag up the pole, if anyone will salute.”

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Lead singer Corey Glover says this is a special moment: “This is the first time we’ve all been on the same page,” he says. “I forgot that we actually agree with each other sometimes. We get it now. We understand what it’s like to be on the road, making music. And we also have the experience of not being around each other and bringing those experiences into whatever we’re doing.”

The new album also reflects the band's evolution to a place of maturity. They all went out, found mates and started families. Basically, they are now rooted in a way they couldn’t have been 20 years ago. Living Colour has been reunited for nearly 10 years—having disbanded for almost six years and reforming in 2000. They’ve played together constantly since then. 

“We’re four African-American men that choose to be in this relationship. That’s increasingly rare. This conversation that we’re in isn’t done,” says Reid. “It’s a conversation between the four of us. It’s a conversation with the culture. It’s a conversation of being four Americans in a world where being an American is a changing thing, where the American idea is undergoing drastic changes.”

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The Chair in the Doorway is a darker, warmer, less buffed-and-shined album than past Living Colour efforts. That said, it stands out as a collection of first-rate songs wrapped in hard rock, metal, funk and blues. Glover’s voice is still that captivating combination of invitation and threat in a single package. And, yes, the band’s amps still go to 11. Longtime fans will be pleased: There are plenty of hard rock numbers like the metallic “The Chair”; the head nod-inspiring “DecaDance”; the fun screamo “Out of Mind”; and the upbraid in “Hard Times.” But these are balanced by the powerful opener “Burned Bridges”; the introspective “Method”; and the electric blues romp that is “Bless Those.”

“As we talk about social things, we also talk about personal things,” says Reid. “’Taught Me’ is ‘Love Rears Its Ugly Head’ 20 years on. It’s ‘Broken Hearts’ 20 years on. It’s really asking the question, ‘What part do I play in the drama I’m in?’”

“They reinvented themselves for the millennium,” says Tate. “Musically, sonically, this is a timeless band, but they’re conscious enough of what the younger cats have done with their influence to take some notes.”

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The world was a very different place in 1988 when Living Colour’s Vivid hit stores. We were dancing to Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock’s “It Takes Two” and raising our fists in solidarity with Public Enemy, who had just released the seminal It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. Hip-hop was on the cusp of gangsta rap with N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton. We fell in love with the idea of driving away in Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” or watching Neneh Cherry assume her “Buffalo Stance.” Rock bands such as Def Leppard and Guns N’ Roses ruled the arenas.

But then came the video for “Cult of Personality.” Who were these guys? They weren’t rappers, and they certainly weren’t smoothed out on any R&B tip. No, they were loud. But they had a groove that rocked with undeniable energy. The guitar player was on fire. And the dread-locked lead singer stalked about the stage, captivating us with this beautiful growl that lurked just below the surface of his warm voice.

“Post-Hendrix, they’re the Jackie Robinsons or the rock ‘n’ roll Obamas of the late ‘80s,” says Daphne Brooks, an associate professor of English and African-American studies at Princeton University. “What they were able to do on MTV at the end of the ‘80s was groundbreaking in its own right.” “Cult of Personality” made it to No. 13 on the Billboard Hot 100, earned the band two MTV Video Music Awards, a Grammy the following year for “Best Hard Rock Performance,” and the album Vivid went double platinum. The band was off to the races, headlining Lollapalooza and touring with the Rolling Stones and Guns N’ Roses.

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For a moment—two to three years—a black rock band was on a level playing field with white rock bands,” adds Darrell McNeill, director of operations for the Black Rock Coalition.

These days, “Cult of Personality” has achieved iconic status. It was included in the video games Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock. But what else accounts for their longevity? Perhaps it’s the fact that they still play live.

“There’s a thing with Living Colour that buttons peoples’ lives,” says Glover. “When they graduated high school, when they met the girl they were going to marry. People can re-experience all of that.”

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On top of the musicianship, their performances always serve to remind and inspire by the possibility they represent. “For African-American artists who are drawing outside the lines, we need to see possibility,” says former label executive Lisa Cortes, who is also the executive producer of the upcoming film Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire. “And we need to see possibility that is successful. Possibility that has both indie cred, commercial success and has been internationally accepted. Their entrée into all of those places is so important. They’ve made a really important contribution by speaking to the realization of imagination and possibility.”

Back at the listening party, the band asks for requests. People begin shouting titles like “Cult of Personality” or “Love Rears Its Ugly Head.” But it’s the request by drummer Will Calhoun’s 11-year-old son that catches everyone’s attention: He asks for The Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go.” Glover gives his bandmate Calhoun a good-natured ribbing for his son not asking for a Living Colour song. But they oblige and launch into what Cortes calls “the most raucous, funky, fun, melodic mashup of the song that I’ve ever heard.”

Not only do they carry on and evolve the traditions inherent in great black music but, as Will’s son demonstrates, they’re passing that vocabulary and sense of possibility onto the next generation. And that’s just it, Reid says. “From Mother’s Finest, War, Parliament/Funkadelic, Bad Brains, and on down the line, Living Colour is part of an unbroken chain on the continuum of black music.”

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Rob Fields writes about black rock and the evolving black imagination on his blog, boldaslove.us.