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Living Colour, Mexicali Blues Cafe, Teaneck, NJ: We’re still here, you’re still there June 2, 2010

Posted by Anton A in American music.
Tags: , ,

I drove up to Teaneck this Wednesday night to see Living Colour at Mexicali Blues Café. I’d been wanting to get to Mexicali for several years; friends had told me that it’s a great small club and a fine place to see a band, but the right artist has never been there at the right time for me. It also seemed a bit tricky to get to, and the directions on their website only complicated things, but I finally figured it out.

Last year we discovered the Teaneck Kebab House, a mysterious little Afghan restaurant that seems to float behind a beaded curtain on a wall inside a pizza joint in Lower Teaneck. (You eventually find out that they use the pizza oven to bake their wonderful Afghan breads.) There’s something quintessentially Jersey about all this. You go through the curtain and find yourself in a room full of colored lights, Afghan carpets, wall hangings, and brassware, with the scents of exotic spices in the air. It’s like walking through a gateway to a magical land. Isn’t what that we’re all looking for sometimes?

Sorry, I’ve digressed. I finally realized that, to get to Mexicali, you go to the Teaneck Kebab House, turn left at the next corner, drive north for a few more miles and zap! you’re there. Once I got that, the route was easy.

As for Living Colour: back in 1988, when their first album came out, I persuaded a good friend to go with me to see what was hyped to be their breakout New York gig at a new club in Times Square that was supposed to herald the revitalization of that area. Times Square did get better, but otherwise the hype could not have been more wrong; afterwards, we agreed that this had been the worst experience of our concert-going lives.

Twenty-two years later, the show stands as the third worst I’ve seen by a professional band that had garnered critical respect. The venue remains the worst ever; I was glad to hear that it failed within a year. The club staff was rude and abusive. The drums were miked so loud that they turned the rest of the sound to mush. Vernon Reid, in those rare moments when you could hear him, seemed to be off in his own universe, playing fantastically fast lead lines that bore no relationship to what the rest of the band was doing. You couldn’t hear Corey Glover at all. It was an awful night to be a rock fan.

I didn’t give much attention to Living Colour after that, though I found myself liking them whenever I heard one of their songs on the radio. I thought that Glover was a great singer; they had a tightness and clartity of sound on record that had been sorely lacking that night on Times Square.

The years spun by. You couldn’t help reading about Vernon Reid in the local press from time to time and you had to give him some respect. Heck, he lived & recorded in a funky old mansion guarded by gargolyes on Staten Island; he had to have something going on to get to that sort of place in life.

In October 2007, I ran into Head>>Fake, the Living Colour rhythm duo of Doug Wimbish on bass and Will Calhoun on drums, opening for Porcupine Tree at New York’s Beacon Theater. I liked their set; they used a raft of electronics to create a rich palette of sonic textures. They also conveyed a strong sense of fun, in contrast with the headline act who were hugely talented but oh so serious.  I thought then that it might be conceivable to see Living Colour again at some point. When I got an email about their Mexicali gig, everything snapped into place.

I arrived late. The directions I’d mapped out were on target, there was plenty of parking, but an 8:00 show that actuallly starts on time isn’t always easy even when it’s just a handful of miles up the back roads of Jersey.

There was a short break going on when I arrived; the band was standing around on stage and a tech was fussing with the drum kit. I asked at the door; they’d already played two songs. Vernon Reid was sipping from a mug of coffee and carrying on about how good it was. Eventually they got the drums adjusted. Wimbish laid into a long, effects-heavy bass solo, the kind of thing I’d seen him do with Head>>Fake. It eventually morphed into Middleman.

Calhoun’s drums were still seriously miked, you could feel the air in the room whoosh past you whenever he kicked the bass drum. Certain notes on Wimbish’s bass could rattle your breastbone. But their sound engineer really understands the concept of balance; you could hear Reid’s guitar and Glover’s soulful voice clearly all night. Nobody overwhelmed anybody else. In spite of the apparent loudness, the sound levels were comfortable; there must have been some skillful tweaking of the EQ on the high end.

They played for just under two hours, including the songs I’d missed.  I enjoyed every bit of what I saw. Reid’s playing seemed aimed at making the music work; he soared off into a lot of solos that never lost their relationship to the ensemble effort. Wimbish and Calhoun were even more impressive on Living Colour’s well crafted songs.  Glover delivered the vocals masterfully. This is a band that seems to have coalesced and found their focus over the years. I wish I’d picked up on them again sooner, but that disaster of a night in 1988 had cast a long shadow.

Mexicali Blues was as fine a venue as folks had said; it’s a nice small room that holds maybe 200, with comfortable sound levels and good sight lines from almost any point. There’s swath of tables in the middle of the floor, and more tables up on a little balcony, for people who want to be seated; the more energetic fans stand in front or behind.

After the show I hung about for a few minutes, finishing the drink I’d just ordered and watching the crew dismantle the band’s fascinating array of equipment. I’ve never seen such rows of stomp boxes and pedals for both guitar and bass; these guys are seriously into crafting their sound. Then I noticed that Doug Wimbish was hanging out with the fans; I strolled over and asked him quickly if there was a spare copy of the set list kicking around. He kindly said “Just a minute,” hopped back up on stage, tore off the one that had been taped to his amps and handed it to to me. So, with my thanks to Mr. Wimbish, here is the full set list:

Ignorance Is Bliss
Desperate People
Burned Bridges
Memories Can’t Wait
The Chair
Go Away
Behind The Sun
Love Rears Its Ugly Head
Glamour Boys
Bless Those
Cult Of Personality
Time’s Up




1. arthurgoldwag - June 22, 2010

but what was cool about that Times Square gig was seeing Maceo Parker get up and join the band. Seeing him. I couldn’t hear a note he played. But I remember he was wearing a dark suit and he didn’t break a sweat.

2. Anton A - June 22, 2010

Thanks for the memory nudge. I’d forgotten that Parker had played with them at that show; your comment just brought that moment right back. I wonder if he was able to hear himself play that night.

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