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Living Colour, Black Rock and Art with Ericka Blount Danois

By Ericka Blount Danois

Living Colour’s, Shade, their first new studio album in eight years dropped September 8th on Megaforce Records. The cover art begins to tell the story of this album. The artwork was created by D.C. based mixed media artist Anike Robinson, with input from band members, including vocalist Corey Glover, guitarist Vernon Reid and includes some of the artwork of drummer Will Calhoun. The cover looks like the tie-dyed face of a woman, adorned in blues and reds and mixed up purples. While Shade is blues-inspired, it’s filled with new sounds that can’t be categorized. There’s straight-ahead rock and jazz, southern country-styled hip-hop, New Orleans brass band, soul, and everything in between. Producer Andre Betts spent five years in the studio perfecting it. Guests on the album include a who’s who of eclectic music making, including the funky trombone of Big Sam and pedal guitar of Roosevelt Collier on “Who’s That,” commentary from Houston rapper Scarface on “Program” and George Clinton on “Two Sides.” There are covers of Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues,” Robert Johnson’s “Preachin’ Blues” and Biggie Smalls’ “Who Shot Ya.” The tune “Invisible” offers homage to Buddy Miles who came to every show Living Colour did in Chicago when they first started out.

After a long hiatus after The Chair in the Doorway the group was inspired to create Shade in 2012 when they performed at Harlem’s Apollo Theater to celebrate Robert Johnson’s 100th birthday. They performed off the cuff, creating magic for the audience with their blues and metal based revision of the Johnson’s classic. That was their cue to create a blues-based album, full of social commentary from police brutality to the proliferation of a news cycle dedicated to profits rather than information. Vocalist Corey Glover and guitarist Vernon Reid, talked to me about the state of the human race, and continuing to do what they love.

 

  1. I know people are referring to it as a blues album, but there are so many different genres—it’s hard to categorize it as just as a blues album. What would you say about its connection to the blues?

 

  1. Corey—I think it’s as much a blues album as Abraxas is a blues album to me. I think if you take the idea of the blues as a musical idea, it’s really not, it’s an emotional idea. We do a version of Robert Johnson’s “Preachin’ Blues” which is really a treatise on manic depression. He used the idiom of the blues to do it, but he’s really talking about his internal life, which is what the blues is really.

 

  1. Were you influenced the Abraxas record?
  2. Vernon –There have been many different records, like the Isley’s records that have been in the background. With Shade blues is a thread that runs through the whole record, either in form or in content or story. For example, “Who Shot Ya” is not a blues record. But the story by Christopher Wallace is a blues story. It’s like a blues fable or a folk tale. The very fact of what happened to Christopher Wallace makes it the blues. That’s part of why it fits into the record Shade. A song like “Who’s That” is more of a traditional blues in form, but its talking about some very real life kind of stuff. “Two Sides” is this idea of looking at duality. To me the most crucial line and it’s so resonant with what’s happening today is when he goes “its nostalgia for things that never happened.” That strikes right at the heart of the American concept.

 

A.Corey: The taming of a noble savage. What we long for. Make America great again. We deal with those issues constantly and you internalize those issues. That’s all the blues ever was. Those sharecroppers and those juke joints, that’s about their internal lives. I love you, but I can’t be with you. I need you, but I don’t love you, I need you for right now. You left me and now my world is destroyed, that’s the essence of the blues.

 

A.Vernon: There are songs that are really oblique. Like the song, “Glass Teeth,” it’s very abstract. It’s partly about the way we show out. About the way accoutrements and the things we have can have a life of their own and a consciousness. That’s part of the thing about when Corey says not to be unkind, I’m inside your mind. That’s very powerful. That power of observation and also witnessing. You know when someone is living in their car. It may be a very nice car. But they drive up to the same YMCA and take a shower. We see that and we may keep our judgment to ourselves, but the person doing that may be just trying to make a way out of no way.

 

  1. I loved the video for Who Shot Ya –you included a range of names from Eleanor Bumpurs to Kurt Cobain

 

  1. Vernon—Biggie was calling somebody out—he was talking about Tupac, but that’s a longer, deeper story. But the idea that you’re calling down the idea, that my essence will get you killed. Who I am will get you killed. Kind of deep. We had to take an almost telescopic view and take that narrative. That song is not an anti-violence song, it’s not about that. He’s giving a creative narrative. For us we have the benefit of placing Biggie in this larger framework of the everyday tragedy. He’s a very celebrated, famous guy, but he died like a common person on the street. The same time America has this horrendous record of artists that have died by gunfire. It’s shocking if you include accidental discharges and suicide. If you think about it, we have a situation where you have Marvin Gaye, Kurt Cobain, Lee Morgan, Tupac Shakur, Biggie Smalls. It’s astonishing the number of artists that have died under the gun. Connect that to a level for everyday people. To ask the question—who in this world has to use a gun to solve their problem? There’s a deeper question to ask about when we say black lives matter and we mean it we really have to ask ourselves—it’s not just about what the cops are doing to us, it’s what we are doing to each other and we have to face that. What is the correct response to who decides who lives or dies?

 

  1. Tell me a bit about what the artwork is supposed to symbolize?
  2. Corey: We were trying to find an emotional anchor for the album. Shade is more than just the absence of light. Just because you are dark doesn’t mean you don’t have light in you. That’s what I loved about Anike’s artwork is that it involved and evoked a light from within but a darkness from without. It was so evocative to me. There are so many layers to her work. That to me is again applying it to the word shade and knowing there’s layers to that. There are many shades of blue, many shades of brown, many shades of black. You get that through her artwork.

 

Vernon: Corey and I were touring for The Chair in the Doorway and we went to lunch and we started talking about what’s next. We said we should call the next thing Shade. We started going back and forth about the word shade and the multiple meanings it has. It can be relief from pressure, but also pressure given. Shade is side-eye across the room. Shade is the particular sheen of the skin you’re in. All of those different meanings and subtexts. That’s what we are trying to grapple with. At least from the perspective of a secular sound connecting blues as a thread and an ongoing dialogue of what it means it to be black in America.

 

 

  1. Why did you end up doing Robert Johnson’s Preachin Blues?

 

  1. Vernon: We were invited to the centenary of Robert Johnson at the Apollo. We were kind of in between a rock and a hard place and we didn’t have a chance to rehearse. Corey was like put those lyrics on top of that riff and when we did it and it worked and it was like a bolt out of the blue. To me that’s where it became very clear what Shade had to be about. That was the moment. That was the spark that let us know what Shade had to be.
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