Living Colour were the best rock band around when the decade of the 1980s finally flipped its odometer. Carried by the chart assault of their “Cult of Personality”, Living Colour’s 1988 debut, Vivid, went platinum on its improbable journey to the six spot on Billboard‘s pop charts. They were bringing their full-frontal assault to stages everywhere, whether opening for the Rolling Stones at Shea Stadium, or headlining atop Urban Dance Squad at SUNY Stonybrook. Corey Glover’s rainbow dreads were flying high on Saturday Night Live; Vernon Reid’s vicious shreds were dissected by almost every guitar magazine. The band found an angel in Mick Jagger, featured a Berkelee-trained drummer named Will Calhoun, and fashioned songs that were nearly as in your face as their socially conscious lyrics. Their second album, Time’s Up, was perhaps the first highly-anticipated album of the 1990s, and it failed to disappoint either the band’s fans or the suits at the record company. Until unlikely lynch-pin Muzz Skillings [bass] left the band — a departure causing the most significant band alteration since the advent of Van Hagar — Living Colour seemed invulnerable.
“This is unbelievable for me because this place brings back so many memories; this is the house that made us”, exclaims front-man Glover near the end of a Living Colour set captured at CBGB’s on December 19, 1989. In retrospect, his words sound like a Janus-faced statement: just as it was in the raw club scene of New York City that the band honed its craft and found its first fame, so too was it — after the initial onslaught of international success — to New York that the band returned to perfect the songs for its upcoming release. Because producer Ed Stasium wanted to recorded Time’s Up with a live-in-the-studio approach, Living Colour needed to work many of the album’s songs out in precisely that fashion, namely, live. One particular manifestation of the work-in-progress that became Time’s Up is found on the newly-released Live at CBGB’s: a quick hour-long set that features few songs from Vivid and mostly material that [when originally delivered] fits Glover’s taunt, “You never heard any of this before, right?”
Live at CBGB’s is a good Living Colour show: captured in the comfort of playing to a home crowd, the quartet is relaxed and having fun. Will Calhoun’s drumming goes over a top that the propriety of a proper album wouldn’t entail, Vernon Reid’s solos blister in a fashion that is — especially for him — excitingly melodic, Corey Glover’s shouts and melismas (ten years ahead of their pop moment) are right-on, and Muzz Skillings’ tidy bass work unites all the wild rampaging of the other boys with an artful and steady anchor. The band is having an incredible amount of fun, but hasn’t lost its sense of professionalism, as the interspersed spoken-word samples (made famous on “Cult of Personality”) attest.
Perhaps because they’re back home in The City, Living Colour showcase their most urban material on Live at CBGB’s: the then-newly-penned history lesson of “Pride”, the blistering vitriol of “Open Letter to a Landlord”, and the “Funny Vibe” inspired by the band members while walking New York’s streets. At its best, this look into Living Colour’s past reminds the listener just how strong a voice this band brought to the center of the media world in its day; rarely have such songs of uncompromising honesty been celebrated with Grammy awards and sales in the millions. (Remember this was also the day of the “Cop Killer” controversy, which could potentially have plagued Living Colour had their genre not been “Rock” but the more easily racially identifiable “Rap”.) The thematic unity that ties Time’s Up together with Vivid is incredibly present as the former’s “Solace of You” segues into the latter’s “Middle Man”; on December 19 of the last year of the 1980s, Living Colour were not only a band with a mission, but a group that — against all odds — was succeeding.
At its worst, Live at CBGB’s is an inexplicable release: while it’s a pleasant listen, the reason for it’s coming to the light of day now seems as obscure as is its all-too-often muddled sound. The three previously unreleased songs hardly merit any fanfare; in fact “Soldier’s Blues” is a reminder of how annoying Reid’s avant tendencies could sometimes be. (Imagine Vernon saying to himself, “Wouldn’t it be a great improvement on the timeless 12-bar blues if we reduced them to only 9?”) Furthermore, as far as I can tell and inasmuch as the liner notes fail to explain, there was nothing particularly historic that befell Living Colour six days before Christmas in 1989. Lastly, while the band is clearly caught playing at the top of their form, it’s all too often hard to hear them on this recording with any sense of precision: what’s the purpose of owning a live version of “Cult of Personality” if you can’t even hear its opening guitar riff?
Even on an average night, even with the dingy sound quality of small (in size, not stature) city venue, ultimately Live at CBGB’s attests to the fact that Living Colour was always a band worth hearing, no matter which songs they were playing nor where they were playing them. And while At CBGB’s is hardly a live album on par with timeless classics like At Leeds or At the Plugged Nickel, it certainly is a decent if imperfect attempt to capture an incredible flash of lightning in a sometimes ill-fitting bottle. More properly put, this new opportunity to listen again to a band I hadn’t thought of in years reminds me that Living Colour were not only a band worth hearing, but listening to. And while the same unfortunately can’t be said of Stain, CollideOscope, or anything else the band has done since Skillings departed, the fact remains — and Live at CBGB’s proves it — that, for a brief, shining moment, there was no band in America or the world more worth listening to than Living Colour.