When the four members of Living Colour went separate ways in 1995, drummer Will Calhoun grabbed his passport and went globetrotting. Over the course of the five years that followed, Calhoun's journeys took him everywhere from Russia (as a member of jazz great Wayne Shorter's touring band) to Australia (where he studied tribal music while living with an Aborigine family in the Outback) to Morocco, where he went to explore the trancelike sounds of Gnawan music.
Though his destinations were diverse, the question was always the same: When is Living Colour getting back together? "It seemed like I was being asked almost everywhere I went," says Calhoun. "It was amazing to learn that the music we created had traveled so far around the world. I had everyone from [Montreux Jazz Festival founder] Claude Nobs to Mick Jagger pull me aside and tell me we needed to regroup. It really made me think about the art and energy of Living Colour and the impact that we made. As an artist, you have to respect that."
That Living Colour's legacy has broken through obstacles of language, distance and culture comes as little surprise. Formed by guitarist/Black Rock Coalition founder Vernon Reid in 1984, the quartet revised a Black music tradition that extends from Chuck Berry and Little Richard to Jimi Hendrix and Parliament-Funkadelic. Over the course of their career, they released three critically acclaimed albums (Vivid, Time's Up and Stain), which sold over 4 million copies combined, earned a pair of Grammy Awards, two MTV Music Video Awards and tore up stages around the world. They were perhaps the only band that could have opened for the Rolling Stones and played the first, groundbreaking Lollapalooza Tour.
Deciding that he didn't want to be "sitting around with regret at age 60," Calhoun phoned Reid in December of 2000 and invited him to sit in with Headfake, a drum & bass side project featuring former Living Colour bassist Doug Wimbish and on occasion, vocalist Corey Glover. The guitarist agreed, and a gig was booked at the band's old stomping ground of CBGB's under the winking banner of "Headfake and Surprise Musical Guest."
The faithful turned out by the hundreds and the band didn't disappoint. On the same small stage where they had been discovered more than a dozen years earlier, a revitalized Living Colour blazed through searing renditions of "Cult of Personality" (from 1998's Grammy-winning, multi-platinum album Vivid), "Love Rears Its Ugly Head," "Time's Up" and "Type." In a review of the show, MTV reported that "the foursome tore into [their set] with the fervor of newcomers."
"It was such an incredible feeling to look across the stage and see Corey standing next to Vernon and Will playing behind them," recalls Wimbish. "You could see that they were having a great time. After all those years, it was good to be able to share a moment like that once again."
In fact, it felt so good they decided to do it again and played a string of sold-out nationwide club dates, while also hitting South America and the European festival circuit.
"It felt a little weird at first," says Reid. "But we started becoming a band again. And based on the reaction we were getting at the shows, it was clear that our audience still cares. Hell, people were coming up to me after gigs and saying we've reaffirmed their faith in music. That's pretty powerful."
Inspired by fan reaction and eager to redefine its focus, the quartet began to write. Fully aware that their long absence required one helluva re-entry vehicle, they took time to craft the material carefully. "We spent a year and a half writing and recording four albums worth of material," laughs Calhoun. "It was a long, drawn-out process, but I think we needed to go through it to make the right record."
The much-anticipated result is CollideØscope (Sanctuary Records), an electrifying testament to the range and depth of Living Colour's artistry. The band's first studio album in ten years sees them staying true to their roots, while keeping their grooves current and hearts open. The songs are edgy, inventive and uncompromising and rank among the influential band's best ever.
"We felt the record really had to say something," says Glover. "Over the years, we've seen a lot of things go down that aren't being addressed and someone needs to talk about that. We had an obligation then and we have an obligation now to speak the truth, and we're never going to be afraid of that."
Looking at the world outside his window, Glover sees an America filled with disillusion, injustice and fear. It's a vista of ruin, its streets littered with broken and abandoned promises and he channels the collective hurt into songs of monolithic power. Like many of us, the seismic repercussions of the September 11th terrorist attacks have forced him to reevaluate his perceptions of good and evil ("Song Without Sin") while avoiding a life of fear ("A ? of When" and "Operation Mind Control"). As Glover tells it, the latter two are flip sides of the same paranoia.
"'A ? of When' refers to 'the high alerts,' he says. "We have been told us time and again, 'it may not happen today, tomorrow, or the day after that, but it'll happen soon and it'll be very severe.' We're being kept in this state of suspended fear. It's been said that you can run a lot of things by people in a state of confusion. That leads to 'Operation Mind Control,' which is about those that go along with it all. It's a gleeful sing-along of paranoia, saying, 'hey, this is fun-let's dance for the surveillance cameras'."
The album's emotional linchpin is the achingly beautiful "Flying," a heart-wrenching tale about a young couple whose tragic end comes sudden and without warning. In a single moment, their dreams are both realized and erased, and no one takes notice of their passing.
"It's a story about a guy who goes to work at the Trade Center on September 11 and decides that today is the day that he's finally going to ask out Carmen, a co-worker," says Glover. "Ironically, they do wind up together, but it's certainly not the way he imagined it. It's the idea of taking this huge, tragic event and boiling it down to its smallest essence, which is that it was about people. There were so many people there that day, going to work, punching time clocks. Who knows how many of them got to realize their dreams on that final day?" As the album spins on, Glover talks pointedly and poignantly about consumerism ("Choices Mash Up; A) Happy Shopper"), anxiety ("Holy Roller") and global environment ("Sacred Ground")against a stunning backdrop of hypnotic grooves, honeyed melodies and speaker-shattering guitars.
Living Colour does a lot of things brilliantly-and they do most of them on CollideØscope, offering an adventurous earful of soulful, raucous rock ("Lost Halo"), reggae/dub ("Nightmare City") and electro-dynamics ("In Your Name"). Among the album's many highlights is the band's blistering version of the AC/DC classic "Back in Black."
"It's a song we've wanted to do for a long time, but it takes an interesting twist with us," laughs Glover. "There are references to having nine lives and lynching with lines like, 'they've got to catch me if they want me to hang.' That definitely takes on new meaning when I sing them."
"On one hand, the idea of Living Colour doing 'Back in Black' is a no-brainer," adds Reid. "But there's an unintended irony that comes into play because of the lyrics. I've heard the song millions of times over the years and the only thing I remember hearing clearly is the chorus. But it turns out there are certain lines in the verses that give our rendition real resonance."
Produced by the band and mixed by Andy Stackpole, CollideØscope also features a devastating cover of the Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows." "We originally planned to do it for a project that never materialized, but it fit perfectly on this record" says Reid. "This song and 'A ? of When' are flipsides of the same coin. On the former, you have fear and loathing, while the latter speaks about the endless coming and going of life and that everything happens for a reason. It's a classic song."
CollideØscope may have taken a year and a half to make, but it arrives just in time and was definitely worth the wait. In an era when there's a cookie-cutter sameness to so many of today's acts, the return of Living Colour recalls a time when bands were praised for their uniqueness and willingness to take music to the edge.
"As an artist, you want to make the right moves and step up the ladder," says Calhoun. "But what does that mean for your integrity and artistry? If going up the ladder means becoming more conservative and corporate, then you can have the ladder. We don't want it. We'll just keep doing our own thing."
Official website: livingcolour.com