Live! Living Colour at the Birchmere

Living Colour is launching its first North American tour in four years at the Birchmere, two weeks before the release of its first studio album in five years.
Living Colour is launching its first North American tour in four years at the Birchmere, two weeks before the release of its first studio album in five years. (By Bill Bernstein)
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Thursday, August 27, 2009

It might be hard to recall now, with contemporary black artists such as Ben Harper, Lenny Kravitz and TV on the Radio making potent rock music, but there was a time when Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid saw the need for the nonprofit artists collective Black Rock Coalition to help smash racial barriers on the hard rock scene.

When Reid's band, which draws inspiration from Jimi Hendrix, Talking Heads and Ornette Coleman, became a vibrant presence at New York's CBGB in the late 1980s, Living Colour was at the front lines of a musical revolution. Its multi-platinum debut album (1988's "Vivid"), industry fans such as Mick Jagger and high-profile videos (Living Colour was named Best New Artist at the 1989 MTV Video Music Awards) inspired a generation of young black rockers. When the band's iconic single, "Cult of Personality," won a Grammy Award for Best Hard Rock Performance, there was no doubt that change had come.

Living Colour is set to release its first studio album in five years, "The Chair in the Doorway," and will launch its first North American tour in four years at the Birchmere on Tuesday. The band still contains original members -- Reid, singer Corey Glover, drummer Will Calhoun and, since 1993, bassist Doug Wimbish -- and has lost none of its potency.

Calhoun, in an e-mail interview, said the years apart have been productive. He worked on projects with Wayne Shorter, Pharaoh Sanders and Mos Def and spent many years researching the music and cultures of Africa, Brazil, Belize and the Australian Outback for a documentary film and CD-DVD set titled "Native Lands." And, he added, "During these years, I developed a serious passion for photography. I've had two photo exhibitions, one in Harlem and the other in Switzerland." (More information is available at his Web site, http://www.willcalhoun.com.)

For a while, Glover played Judas in a national touring company of "Jesus Christ Superstar." Reid has worked with Jagger and Tracy Chapman, among others. Wimbish played sessions with the Rolling Stones, Depeche Mode, BT and Annie Lennox. Over the years, the band members sat in on one another's projects and got together to re-record "Cult of Personality" for the Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock video game. Calhoun said the process was inspiring, and new material soon followed. While the band was touring in Europe, Calhoun said, "everything seemed to be connecting on a creative level, so we decided it was time to record again."

Living Colour's music has always been hard to categorize because it integrates so many influences -- heavy metal, funk, hard rock, free jazz, punk and hip-hop -- but has a melodic bend and lyrical smarts that reach outside genres. The band has played at many kinds of spaces, including the alternative rock stages of Lollapalooza, arts centers and jazz clubs.

The D.C. area holds special memories. Calhoun reminisced about "the original 9:30 club."

"What a vibe -- we had some fantastic shows in that venue, and the audiences were experienced hard-core rock fans. It was our Southern CBGB's."

Calhoun said he has "two great musical memories of D.C. The first was discovering one of my favorite bands in the world -- Bad Brains, and their recording, 'Banned in D.C.' The second was during my student years at the Berklee College of Music [in Boston]. I often drove down to D.C. to visit my colleague and brilliant bass player Dave Dyson. He introduced me to the live go-go scene. Some of my favorite performances were Chuck Brown, Rare Essence, Trouble Funk, EU and Junkyard."

Living Colour's Birchmere show will take place two weeks before the new album is released. Calhoun talked about how the collection of modern soul ("Behind the Sun"), politically charged rock ("DecaDance") and sacred steel blues ("Bless Those") relates to the band's full catalogue, including classics such as "Cult . . . " "Open Letter (To A Landlord)" and "Love Rears Its Ugly Head."

"The new material is an international extension to our previous recordings," he said. "With the passing of time, downtime in the band, personal musical endeavors and spiritual/artistic growth, the new music is influenced by our time apart, and our reuniting. Everyone arrived at the writing sessions with fantastic personal ideas from our solo endeavors." He said that new ideas are still taking shape and that the band is already thinking about its next recording.

He promised an extra treat for fans who attend the Birchmere show.


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