Living Colour is one of the most important bands of the last 30 years. They are at once overtly political, preposterously dextrous musicians, and at a glance, relatively accessible. This is exemplified in the 1988 break out hit, ‘Cult of Personality,’ a song which skewers celebrity politics with a chunky metallic riff and a huge chorus. In 2017, the tune couldn’t be more relevant. Donald Trump is the President of the United States, whilst Pauline Hanson’s One Nation has found a rebirth in Australia. The ‘alt-right,’ as they call themselves, has risen on a platform of white supremacy and cultural isolationism. It is apt that the first single for Living Colour’s upcoming new album, Shade, is a reinterpretation of the Notorious BIG’s ‘Who Shot Ya.’ Their version – a blunt criticism of police gun violence – reflects an issue which overwhelmingly affects black youth. I went into the Metro Theatre with one question: how does this translate to an older, white audience?
Before I could find an answer to that question, we were treated to a set from Melbourne hard rockers, Massive. I couldn’t help but feel proud to see them perform before a close-to-capacity Metro, having witnessed them a few years earlier before a paltry crowd at the Erskineville Hotel. 2 albums and an Earache record deal later, they’ve started to hit their stride. The band wasted no time with pleasantries, ripping straight into a raucous slab of bluesy hard rock – the kind you only get from the bowels of Australia’s dingiest pubs. In many ways their fist-pumping ACDC worship is the complete antithesis of Living Colour’s funkier flavours. And yet, it makes perfect sense. Australian pub rock is simply a colloquial permutation of the early blues rock popularised by the likes of Chuck Berry; just add VB and extra distortion. Massive brought both aplenty, chugging beer in between their odes to the riff-rock of yore. Their new single, ‘Calm before the Storm,’ even got a spin on Triple M. As they say, it’s a long way to the top if you wanna rock ‘n’ roll.
The crowd fills out to capacity during sound-check whilst Rage Against The Machine’s ‘Bulls on Parade’ blasts through the PA – a fitting choice. House lights come down. I’m struck by the audience’s reluctance to push forward, an understandable but strange product of the average age in the room. Living Colour emerge from the shadows and slide into an off-kilter cover of Robert Johnson’s ‘Preachin’ Blues,’ before setting the tone for the evening with politically charged Stained cut, ‘Wall.’ One couldn’t help but think of the Trump administration’s border wall, if it should eventuate, and what follows. The song itself is vague enough to resonate in a much broader context, but for many the prospect is all too real. We are then treated to rollicking renditions of Vivid favourites, ‘Middle Man’ and ‘Desperate People.’ It is at this point that I can’t help but move forward, in a bid to get closer to the action…
…Which is when I’m bluntly reminded that this isn’t a mosh-friendly pit. Bizarre. This is the only time I’ve been actively disparaged for daring to move forward in a standing only venue, and I couldn’t help but turn around and ask, “do you know where you are?” There is nothing quite so surreal as watching a sea of rigid white people receive Corey Glover belting out ‘Mind Your Own Business’ with the enthusiasm of a wet blanket. I can’t help but feel the significance of Time’s Up cut, (black) ‘Pride,’ was lost on the (white) crowd. Likewise, Doug Wimbish’s declaration of solidarity with aboriginal Australia led me to ponder the sincerity of the rapturous applause he received. Wimbish regaled us with Living Colour’s 1993 headline tour of Australia, during which he visited The Block in Redfern. Even today, the future of The Block is uncertain, with many doubting the Aboriginal Housing Company’s commitment to affordable accommodation. Support for genuine change across party lines remains thin. It is for this reason I find myself treating the cheering crowd with suspicion – are we not simply patting ourselves on the back for showing Australia’s first people the bare minimum respect?
Whatever the answer, the band was unfazed, tearing through their explosive set of funk-laden rock jams with aplomb. I even came away with a greater appreciation for ‘Behind the Sun,’ a standout from the largely inessential Chair in the Doorway. This is followed with 2 new songs – the aforementioned ‘Who Shot Ya’ and previously unreleased ‘Who’s That.’ An ethereal performance of ‘Nothingness’ created an air of solemn introspection before we were abruptly pulled back into reality with Time’s Up classic, ‘Love Rears its Ugly Head.’ Living Colour’s swagger has no equal. They are at once loose and groovy, whilst also being impossibly tight. This is a band of soloists coming together to create something greater than the sum of their parts. Corey Glover weaves in and out of the kaleidoscopic soundscape with ease, his pipes as versatile as they are powerful. Oh no, please, not that again.
It was at this moment we bore witness to the first of two unique solo spots this evening. Bassist Doug Wimbish used a loop pedal to create a rhythm track, over which he played an emotive and dynamic solo, his fingers dancing up and down the fretboard with ease. In the hands of a lesser musician, this may have been indulgent and underwhelming, but this was no concern for Wimbish. By the end of the extended solo spot, he had the audience eating out of his hand, stopping and starting in between cheers. When the magic finally concluded the band returned to the stage and ad libbed an extended version of the introduction to ‘Elvis is Dead,’ winking to the audience as they mashed the Time’s Up cut with Big Mama Thornton’s ‘Hound Dog,’ which Presley famously covered. ‘Type’ is then followed by drummer Will Calhoun’s drum solo, which makes surprising use of an electronic beat pad. The stage becomes a pop-up light installation thanks to Calhoun’s glow-in-the-dark drumsticks, bright neon tracing his every move. Take note, drummers – this is how you solo.
‘Cult of Personality’ closes out Living Colour’s main set, the prescience of which is not lost on Vernon Reid – “Seriously, fuck Donald Trump.” Over the next 5 minutes I almost lost my voice screaming every damn word. One would’ve forgiven them entirely for finishing up then and there, but after a brief respite they came back on for a fiery 3 song encore. The ticking of a clock leads us into a ferocious version of ‘Time’s Up,’ spliced masterfully with Rage Against the Machine’s ‘Wake Up,’ and James Brown’s ‘Get Up (I Feel like Being) a Sex Machine.’ Their musical quotations are both poignant and gloriously fun. ‘Glamour Boys’ is an absolute riot, before closing their encore with a mash up of ‘What’s Your Favourite Colour?’ and ‘Should I Stay or Should I Go.’ Not everyone in the Metro may really understand, but the answer to the first question is very simple – Living Colour.