Cable television still hadn’t reached our neck of the woods by 1988, but my buddy Tom and I were able to tune into the latest musical trends on MTV at our girlfriend’s houses. Sometime near the end of our junior year in high school we were just hanging out on a Friday night at one of the girl’s homes, and we turned MTV on for background music.
We were drawn to the screen (and speakers) when Living Colour’s “Cult of Personality” was broadcast. Vernon Reid’s ferocious guitar riff sounded like some warning message transmitted from a hostile alien planet, while Corey Glover’s vocals blended Robert Plant swagger with Memphis spirit and Motown soul. The band’s visual aesthetic was just as riveting. We were two skinny white boys who loved hair metal a la Van Halen and Def Leppard; we weren’t accustomed to African-American musicians in Technicolor spandex blaring guitar-powered hard rock.
We should have known better. Thanks to Living Colour, it wasn’t long before we got hip to the glorious non-Caucasian cacophony of Bad Brains, Fishbone, Parliament / Funkadelic, Stevie Salas Colorcode, and Greg Howe.
We picked up copies of Living Colour’s then-new album, Vivid, on cassette and determined to see the band live in concert after plans for a North American tour were announced. Sure enough, they scheduled a date at Phantasy Theatre in Lakewood…and booked an in-store preshow appearance that same afternoon (April 18, 1989) at the Camelot Records in Westgate Mall.
Tom and I hopped in his not-so-trusty lime-green Chevy Nova after our final class that magical day and zipped straight out to Rocky River. Surprisingly, there weren’t many folks queued at the Camelot to welcome the band, whose members sat at a folding table near the storefront alongside a promotional display for Vivid.
This meant we had more time to chat with Reid, Glover, and the guys—all of whom graciously autographed our Vivid J-cards and signed our school steno books.
“Peace of Pi 2 U,” wrote drummer Will Calhoun, etching the symbols for peace and pi on our algebra pad in red Sharpie.
I was only sixteen or seventeen back then, but already a big enough music aficionado and broadminded enough (despite myself) to realize that pigmentation ain’t important when it comes to catchy melodies and irresistible rhythms, and that skin tone will always take a back seat to guitar tone (or, better yet, be jettisoned from the car straightaway). Complexion tops a long list of things rock and roll just doesn’t give a shit about. I loved Prince and Bob Marley and Stevie Wonder as much as Sting and Billy Joel and Howard Jones. Lenny Kravitz’ Let Love Rule and Peter Tosh’s No Nuclear War were on heavy rotation on my Magnavox.
I was familiar with “Voodoo Child” and “Purple Haze,” but Jimi Hendrix was way before my time. It took someone like Vernon Reid to come along and riff his way into my skull (and heart) with the titanic tunes on Vivid, Type, and Stain to truly bring such lessons to life. From then on I knew—really knew—that shred guitar wasn’t exclusive to young, Clearasil-crimping Irish and Italian white dudes any more than funk and soul belonged solely to blacks and Latinos (The Red Hot Chili Peppers would drive that point home shortly thereafter, with Mother’s Milk and Blood Sugar Sex Magik).
The quartet’s dedication to muscular, musical diversity earned them a pair of Grammys for Best Hard Rock Performance (1989 and 1990) and coveted slots opening for
The Rolling Stones (whose Mick Jagger co-produced Vivid) and Guns ‘n’ Roses.
Camelot is gone, bulldozed with the rest of Westgate, and the lime-green Chevy Nova has ascended to that junkyard in the sky. Tom and I graduated high school (and college, and grad school) and are now both married with children. But the music lives on: Living Colour’s and our own. We still jam out on guitar and bass (with drummer friend Dave), and our kids have caught our incurable cases of rockin’ pneumonia.
Indeed, Tuesday’s cranium-rocking concert at Music Box Supper Club was our 11-year old son’s second ride on the Vivid-go-round.
Junior (an unapologetic WWE buff) was introduced to the ferocious foursome vis-à-vis wrestling superstar CM Punk, who’d appropriated the band’s signature hit as his entrance theme. So we invited him to accompany us to Canton this past August, when Living Colour “talked right down to Earth” with Aerosmith at a Pro Football Hall of Fame stadium gig.
He agreed this engagement was better, even if only because it afforded L.C. twice as much time to rock out.
The band’s December 29th headliner on the Flats’ West Bank was also a decidedly smaller affair, but had all the energy of that summer soiree and then some. Taking the stage with a muscular “Middle Man” and uppity “Go Away,” Reid, Glover, and co. proceeded to take Supper Club patrons as (willing) prisoners of their volume and virtuosity for the next hundred minutes.
“Lemmy said it’s all rock ‘n’ roll,” Reid quoted the legendary Motorhead bassist, who passed away Monday.
“The last time I saw him, it was here at the Rock Hall for a Chuck Berry tribute concert. He never forgot where it all came from.”
Living Colour haven’t forgotten their roots, either: The New York natives packed plenty of punk, funk, and fusion into a dozen songs, often transforming four-minute recorded versions into rousing eight-minute extravaganzas replete with unexpected instrumental twists and vocal turns.
In addition to Lemmy Kilmister, the affair was also dedicated to Tamir Rice, the Cleveland boy shot and killed by police last fall outside Cuddell Recreation Center.
Tensions mounted downtown at the Cuyahoga County Justice Center this week after a grand jury voted to not indict the officers involved in Rice’s death.
That news wasn’t lost on the band, whose already socially-conscious lyrics took on palpable profundity when delivered by the multi-octave Glover. Community awareness anthem “Open Letter to a Landlord” veered from poignant ballad to burly rocker—and then to an a cappella showcase during which Glover deliberately strayed from his mic to belt from his gut, ad-libbing (“You’ve got a right to fight for your neighborhood”) and improvising (“You’ve got to protect the children”). He nearly shattered the Music Box windows with his upper-register shrieks.
Reid was less subtle (if soft-spoken) about the Rice fiasco.
“A twelve-year old should not be shot by cops,” he deadpanned after Glover’s gospel-charged display.
“It’s not a black thing. It’s an everybody thing. You’ve got to change it,” the guitarist implored (and repeated). “The police work for you.”
As if to underscore the message, the band ripped into the staccato stutter of “Type,” a 1990 entry chronicling the plight of the “children of concrete and steel” who reside in “a place where the truth is concealed.” The band’s incendiary metal spin on Notorious Big B-side “Who Shot Ya?” morphed Biggie’s rap rivalry sit-rep into a culture-wide query on fascism and protest.
The playlist was curiously devoid any tracks from Collideoscope (2003) and The Chair in the Doorway (2009)—not that we overheard anyone bemoaning the abundance of Vivid and Time’s Up hits. Wielding a golden Paul Reed Smith guitar, Reid unleashed razor-sharp riffs and bristling scales on “Desperate People” and “Ignorance is Bliss,” and leisurely depressed foot pedals to trigger various effects (skids, screeches, space noise) from a Roland VG-99 guitar modeler.
Wimbish’s solo incorporated several styles and techniques, weaving his fluid classical runs, pretty arpeggios, two-handed tapping, and aggressive slap / pop into a compact-but-impressive ten-minute showcase. The babushka bassist began with an understated, melancholy jazz bit, the measures of which he recorded with an electronic effect so he could loop them back and play over them (and effectively accompany himself).
Wimbish alternated between four and five-string Spectors throughout, but on a couple numbers (as on “Love Rears Its Ugly Head”), he switched to a ¾ scale instrument that looked more like a giant ukulele than an acoustic bass.
Ska-tinged “Funny Vibe” poked fun (and vented some furor) at old-world prejudices. Reid said the song came to him after a white woman inexplicably cowered from him at a department store, clutching her purse against any designs he might’ve had on it, at least in her mind.
Reid joked he could tell which ladies in the audience had been dragged to the concert by overzealous husbands and boyfriends:
“I can read your micro-expressions,” the guitarist teased, emulating the vacant stare of the disinterested.
But everyone was interested when “Cult of Personality” dropped late in the set (around 10:15pm), prompting mass fist-pumps and head-banging.
Calhoun spiced his kinetic drum solo with fills and samples on an electronic percussion pad, then—by way of cool-down—took to a pair of brushes on “Solace of You.” The frenetic “Time’s Up” segued into a soulful romp through James Brown classic “Get Up / Sex Machine.”
Outlaws I & I opened up at just past eight, warming Cleveland concertgoers with infectious reggae rhythms and island grooves. The early birds (the dinner crowd) even got a sampling of “Stir It Up” during sound check.
We recently enjoyed an anniversary cruise with the wife in the Caribbean, and The Outlaws’ sunny, getaway tunes transported us right back to the Bahamas—which is all you can ask of any Buckeye State band the week after Christmas, really.
Spearheaded by charismatic, crimson-capped singer / keyboardist Butchie B, the Northeast Ohio reggae vets hypnotized with “Can’t Change the World,” “Give Praise to Rastafari,” and “We Are the Outlaws” (featuring a snippet of Rage Against the Machine’s “Bulls on Parade”).
Guitarist Gino conjured chicka-chicka rhythm chords from a Les Paul, his waist-length dreads swaying to Rod Reisman’s Bermuda beats. But (like Reid) Gino also let loose with a few rapid-fire solos, his torrential notes obfuscating the boundaries between reggae rock and heavy metal.
Bassist Michael “Chopper” Wasson seamlessly synched with Riesman’s strident meters, his low lines ebbing like ocean waves. Principal keyboardist Eddie Mars manned a double-stacked Korg M-1 and Yamaha MO8 synth, his easygoing finger jabs adding string and brass sounds to the mix.
The Music Box crowd couldn’t get enough of the Outlaws’ pulsating positivity, calling for an encore after the uplifting “Can U Feel It.” Butchie and friends obliged with the up-tempo “Slow Down Woman,” shuffling Jimmy Cliff dynamism and Shabba Ranks patois with smooth R&B vocal harmonies.
We were all a wee Jamaican on this occasion, mon.