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Re: Living Colour, The Atlantis, Washington DC

Living Colour, The Atlantis, Washington DC
September 10, 2023 12:19PM
Living Colour
The Atlantis, Washington D.C., July 29, 2023

In the late 80s and early 90s, there was arguably no band cooler than Living Colour, purely on the ground of aesthetics, style, and the combination of confrontational and resonant subject matter with instantly memorable riffs. Arguably a hard rock or metal-adjacent band, although one that drew freely from funk and blues, among other influences, Living Colour was both the leading figurehead of the Black Rock Coalition and an important band in its own right in both artistic and commercial terms.

Despite the ubiquity of the massive hit “Cult of Personality,” I never saw the band when they were at the peak of their commercial influence with their debut, Vivid. They took some stylistic detours with their follow up Time’s Up and then the confrontational and emotionally bleak album, Stain, and then they broke up, losing bassist and important co-writer Muzz Skillings. The band has reformed on multiple occasions with new personnel, but the core of the group was always principal songwriter Vernon Reid on guitar, an exemplary student of popular music and acclaimed commentator in his own right, and the powerful vocalist Corey Glover.

I was mostly excited to see my first show at the 9:30 Club’s new spinoff club, the Atlantis. A tiny appendage to the massive IMP concert-promoting empire of Seth Hurwitz, the Atlantis is a cosplay re-creation of the original venue that housed the first 9:30 Club at 930 F Street NW, a neighborhood from which they have long decamped to the U Street corridor. I arrived in Washington too late to ever see shows the original 9:30, but the new Atlantis does its darnedest to create some of the vibe of that club, while making accommodations for 21st-century needs, among them, the ability to breathe the air without suffocating and use the restrooms without fear of mortal illness, and presumably, some improvements in the fire and emergency and IT.

Like I said, the Atlantis is punk rock cosplay, with vintage posters and artwork recreated on the walls and other retro elements, but as part of the Atlantis opening, IMP booked 44 big acts that had played the 9:30 in its early days, and held an online lottery to which hundreds of thousands of submissions were recorded, each show for $44, in tribute to the 44 years since the original 9:30 Club opened. (Most of the requests were probably for Foo Fighters, one of the most boring bands on the planet, but there were loads of other high-demand bands participating.)

Of all the shows for which I requested tickets, the only one I got was Living Colour. I’ve gained a greater appreciation for Living Colour’s work in the subsequent decades, after mostly ignoring their work after the debut. I own and appreciate Stain with its dark themes of oppression and sexual deviancy and emotional violence, as well as the more fun, but aesthetically confused Time’s Up, which has some of the band’s best written songs, but also some weird digressions. Basically, I like Living Colour as a hard rock-influenced pop band. They have some indelible pop songs, including “Glamour Boys,” “Solace of You,” and, of course, “Cult of Personality,” and the band’s harder edged metal and funk influences never overpowered the melodies and Corey Glover‘s amazing singing voice.

At the Atlantis, shows are apparently very tight with limited disruption and no opening acts. Living Colour took to the 200 person-capacity venue at what would be an unfashionably early start with the same energy that they would presumably bring to a larger show, and I watched Vernon Reid's impressive guitar playing from a vantage point that I would never likely get at a larger show. While the band is currently touring for the 30th anniversary of Stain, the song selection in their relatively brief set at the Atlantis tilted just as much towards the album Time’s Up and some of their cover material.

I found out, several songs into the set, that the band had just done three other shows in the DC/Virginia area the prior two nights, with two very different setlists (candidly I like the look of the Leesburg set more). Perhaps for that reason, and for the novelty of the Atlantis gig, the Living Colour set was heavy on covers, and featured some unusual selections. I loved hearing the powerhouse version of Talking Heads’ “Memories Can’t Wait” as the second song in the set, but I didn’t really get into the three-song set from Stain that followed (“Mind Your Own Business,” “Never Satisfied,” and the withering “Ignorance is Bliss”). It took me a long time to get into Stain, but I got more appreciative of it in recent decades, partly when some friends did a podcast a few years back. But it’s a dark record, and it’s not a fun listen, and its themes of violence and alienation are abundantly clear from the cover art of a woman in a torture-bondage cage.

Then the band threw a real curveball: Observing the 50th anniversary of the birth of hip-hop, Vernon Reid turned the mic over to bassist Doug Wimbish, who joined the band back in 1992 after Muzz Skillings’ departure. Wimbish began his career as a house bassist for Sugarhill Records as a teenager, and at the Atlantis, he went back to his hip-hop roots for a crowd-pleasing medley of Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” and Grandmaster Flash’s “White Lines (Don’t Don’t Do It),” Wimbish really can rap, and the band absolutely nailed the songs; no surprise since many of the members were active in hip-hop’s formative years in the 1980s. Wimbish actually played on many of the legendary early tracks from that era of New York rap. Let me just say, the mostly-white audience of 50-somethings was into it.

After that surprising but wholly entertaining digression, the set took a darker but more stylistically consistent direction with Stain’s “Nothingness,” dedicated to Sinéad O’Connor, whose death had been a few days before. (Similarly they have also covered “Nothing Compares 2 U,” although that’s a Prince song, and they have covered Prince numerous times, including their revelatory version of “17 Days” back in the 1990s.) Maybe it was the heaviness of the occasion of Sinéad’s passing, but that song’s existential grief and anguish brought a lot more emotional heft than some of Stain’s more direct subject matter, like “This Little Pig.”

From there, the set was something of an anomalous greatest hits, with “Type” and “Elvis is Dead” segueing into Big Mama Thornton’s “Hound Dog,” accompanying “Love Rears Its Ugly Head,” from Time’s Up, a record I like but is entirely scattered. But they skipped the lithe Afropop-influenced “Solace of You,” which I always loved, and the lithe pop hit “Glamour Boys.” From Vivid, there was no way they would skip “Cult of Personality,” a song of undying relevance and presence. Although its 20th century political touchstones are probably now more historical than resonant to modern audiences (Mussolini! Stalin! FDR! Kennedy!), “Cult of Personality” has continued to stand as a remarkably critique of how political and cultural power is accrued and used, for good or for ill. It would probably be too heavy-handed to update the song with quotes from Trump or Bolsonaro or other figures; the meanings convey without making the connections so explicit.

The band wrapped up with a tough and tight cover of Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll,” which of course was crowd-pleasing but didn’t seem to add anything particularly distinctive, except perhaps as a rejoinder to the assumption that hard rock is white music — which Living Colour's entire existence rebuts. And with their theme song, “What’s Your Favorite Color?,” the show came to a close. It was just a 70-something minute show; a good one no doubt, but one that seemed a bit less than I was hoping for after thirty years of following the band.

Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 09/10/2023 12:20PM by zwirnm.
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Re: Living Colour, The Atlantis, Washington DC
September 10, 2023 04:59PM
Thanks for the review, Zwirn. Despite the shortness of the set, it sounds like Living Colour brought it.

I saw the band twice, during their commercial ascendance. The first time was at a large club in Denver, whose name escapes me. (It was a pretty flashy joint, more trendy disco than rock club; I don't think I ever saw any other show at that place. Paganizer, does that ring any bells?) The second was on the main stage of the first Lollapalooza tour. Both great shows.

I thoroughly enjoyed Vivid, and saw it as a great debut from a band to watch. But to me, Time's Up marked them as a band poised to become one of the greatest acts of the Nineties. I absolutely loved it, partly because it wasn't Vivid: The Sequel. To me, no matter what "weird digressions" they took their music to, they always made the detours sound like they'd been worth taking.

I admit, I lost track of the band's work since Stain. But my friend Goose (R.I.P.) turned me on to their more recent album The Chair in the Doorway. Check it out if you haven't already.

"Punk rock cosplay," huh ... I guess that's sort of like the current version of the Cavern Club. It partially overlaps the footprint of the original Liverpool landmark, and its interior mimics the layout of the original. (None of this is to suggest we didn't have a great time there.)
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