History will record that in the first week of January, one of the great bands from the late Eighties/early Nineties put an end to a somewhat lengthy absence and made their return to a New York City stage for a brief, electrifying set. Well respected for their collective hard rock brilliance, this foursome reached exponentially larger audiences through exposure on MTV before undergoing a lineup change, break up and reunion years later. Despite the fact that their lead singer proved to be the group’s more photogenic and charismatic member, it’s the guitarist that receives consistent acclaim as one of the best to ever pick up the instrument, influencing and inspiring axemen into the modern day.
Technically, the lineup that took the club’s stage wasn’t the band’s original lineup but no one would ever challenge the bassist’s claim to his position. Even if the band might no longer be in their prime, rock stars aren’t athletes and their skills don’t always diminish with age. That’s right, people. Rejoice! Living Colour has returned. (What, you thought it was some other band?)
The impetus for Living Colour’s reemergence at the Highline Ballroom, their first headlining appearance in more than a year, came as part of the Million Man Mosh, a Black Rock Coalition benefit for the legal defense of Donovan Drayton, son of session musician Ronnie Drayton. While participating in several Experience Hendrix shows, for much of the past two years, the band has been involved in a variety of solo ventures. Most notably, Vernon Reid joined forces with Jack Bruce, John Medeski and Cindy Blackman to form Spectrum Road, a supergroup devoted to reinventing the music of jazz-fusion great Tony Williams, and Corey Glover paired up with Galactic for several dates while working on an upcoming solo album. Logistics aside, the Highline show also marked Reid’s first show since dislocating the ring finger on his fret hand in a November 2011 bicycle accident.
Over the course of a set that featured numerous tracks from Vivid, their breakthrough 1988 debut, Type from Time’s Up and Bless Those from The Chair In The Doorway, Living Colour offered a sermon to the converted, reminding those that recall them as a formidable live force that their memories were correct. Exhibiting no residual effects of his injury, Reid tore through the solos of Cult Of Personality and Open Letter (To A Landlord) in exhilarating fashion.
One of the best rhythm sections in the world, Doug Wimbish and Will Calhoun showed an unflappable ability to turn any situation into a stellar improvisational jam. Near the end of the set, Parliament/Funkadelic guitarist Mike Hampton wandered on stage with his guitar and by sheer force of will (or benign obliviousness) commandeered Living Colour’s show. To the delight and bemusement of the band, Wimbish, Calhoun and Glover assisted Hampton in transforming his James Brown inspired chant of “pass the peas” into a funkified soul workout before they just let Hampton wail on his guitar.
If his a capella intro to Open Letter didn’t erase all doubt, Glover’s has lost none of its strength or power over the passing years. Where the distinctive howls of the Plant’s and Daltrey’s of the world have yielded to the demands of Father Time, Glover’s has proven remarkably resistant. Given that Reid, Glover, Wimbish and Calhoun could each lay a credible claim to being amongst the best at what they do, Living Colour’s inability to sustain their momentum past Time’s Up remains one of rock history’s greater untold stories.
In the rush to reaffirm that rock and roll is not dead, the Alabama Shakes have been thrust from relative anonymity into the role of the genre’s once and future saviors. Arguably the act that benefitted the most from this year’s CMJ Music Marathon, the Shakes seem to be struggling to keep up with their own hype. Not only is their four song, self-titled EP unavailable on iTunes or Amazon, they don’t even have a proper Web site.
In lieu of those trappings, the Shakes have an ocean of raves and a national TV campaign. (In snagging the smoldering final refrain of You Ain’t Alone for its Christmas ads, Zales either showed savvy foresight in showcasing emerging rock and roll or proved themselves to be insidious exploiters of something their marketing flak mistook for Skrillex.) Ready for it or not, the praise for the Shakes isn’t unfounded and many of the same plaudits directed towards Grace Potter in the Nocturnals’ early days could also apply to 22-year-old guitarist/lead singer Brittany Howard. She can unleash a demanding bluesy howl like Janis Joplin and then reign everything back and convey a worldly, emotional pain like she’s Otis Redding or Sam Cooke. Before we thrust the Shakes on the cover of Rolling Stone, it’s probably prudent to wait until they have enough songs to fill an entire album [ed. note – Alabama Shakes announced this morning that their debut album Boys & Girls will hit stores on April 10]. In the meantime, it’s nice to know bands like the Alabama Shakes still exist.
Gary Clark Jr. sits comfortably on the other side of this coin. Long before he held his own with Eric Clapton at the 2010 Crossroads Festival, the young Austin guitarist had been ready for Mr. DeMille (or more properly Mr. Ertegen) to shine his spotlight in his direction. On last year’s 4 song The Bright Lights EP, Clark culled tracks from his prior Gary Clark Jr. EP that centered on his dexterity for the blues, pairing the electric grit of Bright Lights and Don’t Owe You A Thing with live acoustic renderings of Things Are Changing and When My Train Pulls In. As the longer self-titled EP takes a distracting detour into street corner soul and tepid radio rock – to the degree that Sam Jackson’s look to Robert Forster over the fact they are listening to The Delfonics would be an appropriate reaction – it’s unsurprising that the more focused effort garnered Clark a rare EP rave from Rolling Stone. The 28-year-old guitarist truly is one of rock and roll’s newest young guns. One unintended side effect of Clark’s growing fame is that it essentially drains all the drama from John Sayles’ 2007 film Honeydripper, which hinges on whether Clark’s character can credibly pull off an electrified version of the Delta blues. SPOILER ALERT THAT SHOULD BE SELF-EVIDENT: Duh! He does.
One of Greil Marcus’ more significant contributions towards the lexicon of music journalism is his association of traditional folk music with “the old, weird America.” It’s a term bandied about whenever an artist devotes themselves to the arcana of guilt-ridden murder ballads, populist union songs and old-timey, Brother-Where-Art-Thou finger picking. Ostensibly, Marcus’ tome concerns Bob Dylan’s ballyhooed repudiation of the folk ethic at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival and the Basement Tapes, his series of much bootlegged sessions with The Band recorded while the mercurial singer recuperated from a motorcycle accident. However, with its near-unreadable incessant, rambling dissertations on the minutia of the songs found on Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, anyone who speaks reverently of Marcus’ oft-referenced work has clearly never read it.
In the reviews of The Black Keys’ El Camino, no one seems to properly acknowledge Stop Stop. The two instrumental breaks in that song are amongst the best laid down in the studio in 2011.