Vernon Reid and Living Colour tap into Robert Johnson

How do you make a blues record without making a blues record? For Vernon Reid and his band, Living Colour, this question fueled the recording of 'Shade,' their first album in eight years.
By Joe Bosso,

How do you make a blues record without making a blues record? For Vernon Reid and his band, Living Colour, this question fueled the recording of Shade [Megaforce], their first album in eight years. During that time, the veteran genre-bending group struggled mightily to find a cohesive musical thread they could all agree on. But nothing took hold until they performed Robert Johnson’s “Preachin’ Blues” at a benefit concert honoring the legendary bluesman at New York’s Apollo Theater in 2012. While on stage that night, Reid saw the direction for band’s next album laid out before him.

“We went through a lot of different things trying to make a record,” he explains. “The biggest issue was that, whatever we did, it had to have meaning. When we played ‘Preachin’ Blues,’ it had a spark. We were playing the blues, but we did it our way. So I knew we could make a record in which the blues would be a conceptual thread, and there was something about connecting metal and hard rock back to the blues that excited us.”

Living Colour never got by on subtlety, and Shade is every bit as forceful as its early work. And yet, the spirit of the blues had a dramatic effect on the band’s metallic crunch. The grooves are wider and less impatient, and everything feels more soulful and less strenuous. The group’s fiery originals are dotted with rousing covers of Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues” and the Notorious B.I.G.’s “Who Shot Ya,” along with a reverent version of the track that inspired the whole record, “Preachin’ Blues.” And while nobody will mistake Reid’s guitar playing on Shade as the second coming of Albert King or Eric Clapton, he tempers his incendiary approach with a more relaxed attitude.

“When you’re younger, you’re obsessed with beauty and age—being sexy and groovy,” he says. “But that’s not going to last, and as your personality changes, so does your playing. I hear it in my vibrato, and the way I bend notes. I’m trying to move on to something more everlasting, and, hopefully, it shows on this album.”

Given the nature of this record, how would you say the thread of the blues runs through you?

It’s like there are branches of the blues. There was Carlos Santana doing “Black Magic Woman.” Then, there was Hendrix and the Band of Gypsys. I was really digging Hendrix, and I loved “Who’s that Lady?” by the Isley Brothers. But the first record I ever bought was Cosmic Slop by Funkadelic, and that was blues and rock. When I heard The Inner Mounting Flame by Mahavishnu, I could certainly tell that the blues was sideways, but it was there in this path of modal jazz and Eastern mysticism. So that’s how we approached this record—the blues was part of the DNA of what we were doing.

So how did you bring out “more blues” in your playing during the album sessions?

I think it’s a metaphysical-existential thing. The blues has always been a part of what motivates me—even though I’m a person from an urban area. I would be a “city blues” person, like Luther Allison, Buddy Guy, and B.B. King. Plus, there’s Hubert Sumlin with Howlin’ Wolf—that’s the blues I most identify with. Of course, I respect the countryblues guys, too. Lightin’ Hopkins is one of my favorite blues artists of all time. Like I said, there are all the branches—Hendrix, Santana, and so on. It’s all there.

Still, you’ve never hid your avant-garde influences.

Well, it all comes down to the question of “What is avant-garde?” For me, Hendrix was very avant-garde. Look at the way he did “The Star-Spangled Banner.” It’s one of the most beautiful renditions of our national anthem ever done, but it was also the soundtrack of a country tearing itself apart. The feedback and the screaming notes—he just heard it that way. I do like avant-garde guitarists such as Hans Reichel, James “Blood” Ulmer, and Robert Fripp, but I also like Harvey Mandel, Johnny Winter, Jan Akkerman from the band Focus, and Jeff Beck—who has been somewhat avant-garde at times. So I think of it like this: We have to be who we are. Some people have tremendous technique. Some people just make a fascinating noise. And that’s a beautiful thing about music and the guitar. As long as what you do is authentic, it matters.

Your guitar sound on the new album is more full-bodied than before. Are you doing something different with your gear?

I’ve been dancing around. There are a lot of pieces of gear on the record. I’ve been using an old Roland VG-99, and I got pretty far into programming it. Then, I started using a Kemper Profiler—which is just a remarkable piece of technology. I also used a ’90s Mesa/Boogie Dual Rectifier and an early Triple Rectifier, a Quilter, a Bias Positive Grid, and some ’70s Fender Twins that showed up on some overdubs. There were a bunch of different guitars, too. I pulled out some Hamers from way back when, and I used my Parker signature guitar and my Howard Roberts Fusion. I have a custom PRS S2 Vela that’s called the “VR Vela,” and it’s pretty great. It has this V-shaped neck profile, which has nothing to do with my name. A long time ago, I sat down with a ’63 Stratocaster that had a V-shaped neck, and I fell in love with it. So for this Vela model, Paul Reed Smith shaped that kind of neck for me. I love it. But there’s still one guitar that’s “it” for me. It’s the multi-colored ESP that was in the “Cult of Personality” video. It’s an amazing instrument.

What about effects?

I had some basics things—wah wahs and such—a Source Audio Nemesis Delay, and an Eventide H9 pedal for chorus and harmonizing effects. I also had some arcane stuff, including two refurbished Pefftronics Rand-O-Matics. They’re pretty freaky.

The big guitar riff in “Program” is reminiscent of “Cult of Personality.” Is it a nod to the earlier song?

“Cult” was very much influenced by growing up on Zeppelin and Sabbath, and “Program” is a big-riff tune in that same way. They’re very different tunes, but I can see where you’d think they were distant cousins. Riffs are funny things. They’re like photographs. You can snap a picture, and it’s one way, and then snap it a second later, and it’s different. The trick is to get that riff just right and not compromise the feeling. You have to reach that exact moment when you’re like, “That’s it!” In a way, you have to do it without thinking, because if you think too much, you’re going to wreck it.

What’s the most recent thing you’ve learned on the guitar?

I’ve been working on my picking. I’m holding the pick between my forefinger and thumb, and I’m using my middle and ring fingers to get this cool combination thing going. I try to play these intervals in pairs across the neck—sort of like doing fifths. It’s like everybody always says, though—to get them really smooth, you have to play slowly and articulately at first, and then you can speed up. It’s only recently that I’ve been able to play them fast and smooth across the neck. But you know, there’s always another breakthrough coming your way. You just have to play, and be receptive to new ideas.

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