For over 50 years, Jimi Hendrix’s influence on musicians that have come after him is unmatchable. This expands across various styles and genres, even ones where a guitar isn’t being used. It’s safe to say that Vernon Reid from the New York City hard rock act Living Colour has definitely been affected by Hendrix’s music. He’s been a fan of his since his teens and he’ll be coming to the Ocean Mist in Matunuck tonight to pay tribute to the legend as part of Band Of Gypsies Revisited. The quartet will be performing renditions of songs from Hendrix’s seminal live album along with a few others.
Reid and I had a conversation ahead of the show about how he first experienced Hendrix’s music, not being cookie cutter in any way, some of his favorite moments from his career and a few new projects in the works.
Rob Duguay: What do you consider to be the initial moment that you got into Hendrix’s music? Was it from perusing through a record store as a kid, hearing him on the radio or was it through a family member or a friend?
Vernon Reid: It was from a couple of events. When I was a child, I remember hearing “Purple Haze” or something on the radio. As a kid, I was too young to be an active fan when he lived but a friend of mine in high school who I knew from being on the track team found out that I was into guitar and he told me, “Hey man, you have to get this record” and he showed it to me. It was the Band Of Gypsys record that Hendrix recorded at The Fillmore East. When I got a copy of it, my mind was blown.
I was already into Carlos Santana and “Black Magic Woman” along with “Sunshine Of Your Love” by Cream, some Clapton and stuff like that. The other event that happened before I heard that record was seeing Jimi Hendrix on The Dick Cavett Show. He was such a striking figure and you didn’t really see people like Hendrix on TV all that much and you didn’t see a lot of black people on TV in general during that time. He was really striking and the exchange that they had was very telling.
RD: I’ve seen that interview he did with Dick Cavett and it’s very entertaining. Everyone knows you from being a part of Living Colour but you’ve also done jazz collaborations with the likes of Bill Frisell, Jack Bruce and John Medeski and hip hop with Pharoah Monch and Immortal Technique. So going from all of this to Band Of Gypsies Revisited, how much of a change is it for you artistically when it comes to getting the complexities of Hendrix’s guitar techniques down?
VR: It’s an interesting thing because it’s kind of a push and pull. Band Of Gypsies Revisited isn’t like a museum piece and it’s not a re-creation. I kind of can’t stand that, I’m more motivated by the inspiration of the journey Hendrix took and his guitar playing is in the context of these amazing songs. It’s a look at these songs and doing slightly different versions, one thing about this band I’m in is that there’s two guitar players. There’s me and Andre ‘Dre’ Glo’ Lasalle, who is much more of a music aficionado than I am in a way.
Jared Michael Nickerson on bass has played with Marshall Crenshaw and Charlie Musselwhite along with a bunch of others. The drummer, James ‘Biscuit’ Rouse, is the secret weapon of the whole thing who plays with the Screaming Headless Torsos and he’s also played with Lauryn Hill. He’s a really kickass drummer but he’s also an amazing singer. The band also has two lead vocalists, which is also very interesting. Along with the Band Of Gypsys material, we also play a couple of tunes that are Hendrix’s but they’re not part of that specific repertoire.
Sometimes we play “Are You Experienced?” and we actually just learned “The Burning Of The Midnight Lamp.” It’s cool to take a look at some of the other music of Hendrix’s but through that lense.
RD: What inspires you to play such a wide variety of styles ranging from hard rock to punk to funk to jazz?
VR: All of these different kinds of music have different techniques and different approaches along with different ideas around them. Each of them are examples of the human condition and the human experience. It’s not just emotional, it’s also intellectual and all sorts of different things. What moves me cuts across genres, it’s what the person singing or playing the song is processing. They could have a clever way of looking at life, if I hear a Hank Williams tune I’m not thinking of it as a song from some country guy.
I’m into the meaning of it, like “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” is a certain kind of emotional experience from the male perspective. The song is talking about what the person can’t handle and the best part of it is what goes unspoken and is not directly conveyed. The difference between those is very significant. When things can be looked at from two different directions at once, those kinds of things across different genres are very interesting to me. That’s what I like in music, so when I hear Chris Cornell, Thelonious Monk or music from wildly different places, they meet in my mind in a very similar place.
I see that sort of flip-flop where you can look at the complexities and the similarities. When Amy Winehouse sang “They tried to make me go to rehab and I said no, no, no,” it’s all in the “no, no, no.” It’s a decent record but there’s something in it that makes you get it immediately.
RD: That’s an amazing perspective to have on how music gravitates to you with this multi-dimensional outlook. Looking back on your career so far, what do you consider to be your proudest moment as a musician since you started out in 1979?
VR: When Jack Bruce asked me to play on his record, A Question Of Time, that was a through the looking glass moment because I remember listening to “Sunshine Of Your Love” on the radio. Through circumstances and the way the universe works, I started playing music myself and I met the guy who did “Jumping Jack Flash” and played with the person who played “Black Magic Woman,” which was at this club called The Stone in San Francisco with Santana. Then I walked into a studio to play guitar for Jack Bruce, words literally can’t describe what that felt like. It’s unfathomable, there are a lot of moments and I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have been around such extraordinary people. Another big moment for me was the writing of “Cult Of Personality.”
Not because that song is a hit but because of the way it was written, it was pretty incredible. We used to have a rehearsal loft in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn but now they’re trying to call that area East Williamsburg. Corey Glover was singing something to me that he wanted me to play and I literally stumbled upon the riff. As soon as I started playing this riff, I said to Will Calhoun on drums “Yo, play a beat to this!” He started knocking a great backbeat to it and Muzz Skillings, who was the bass player at the time, started jamming on this riff.
It just started to emerge and it almost started to write itself while flowing through the band as the way it was going to come to life. It was the weirdest thing that had an odd way of happening. The rehearsal of that day was the writing of “Cult Of Personality.” I had these lyrics that I wrote in this red notebook that I used to have. I was a little kid when John F. Kennedy was assassinated and my parents were really young and they were very upset, as all Americans were.
I remember watching on live TV them bringing Lee Harvey Oswald in for arraignment and my father said, “That’s the man who shot the President.” While watching the TV I see Jack Ruby come into the frame and all of a sudden he shoots him. It was the most shocking thing I’ve ever seen and somehow all of that came into the lyrics along with a bunch of other historical figures. This was a time where people loomed really large because the media was really small. Since the media was only a few channels, these personalities were magnified.
It’s hard to articulate how whenever Martin Luther King, Jr. came on television, or Bobby Kennedy, it was exciting. People like Malcolm X were being presented as being larger than life, so the fact that they were being shown this way inspired the lyrics. With that riff, it all just came together. I’m proud to have witnessed and been a part of a process like that. Being a music lover, I always think to myself about how to make a great song and a great record. Before I was a musician, I used to think about what it would be like to be a part of something like that and play it live.
The week we wrote “Cult Of Personality,” we played it at CBGB’s and people dug it right away. The evolution of how it all came to be will always be one of my favorite moments.
RD: It’s incredible to hear the story of how that song was created, thanks for that. Also, working with Jack Bruce must have been so surreal.
VR: Yeah, that was special.
RD: After this run of shows with Band Of Gypsies Revisited, what’s next for you?
VR: Actually, I’m under contract to this label called Mascot and I have a solo record that I’m going to start working on. I’m going to begin putting music together for that by having sessions so I’ve been reaching out to a bunch of musicians to join up with me on it. I’m looking forward to getting into that project. I’m also doing music for a documentary with a couple of directors called When Claude Got Shot. It’s about a gentleman in Milwaukee who was a victim of a failed carjacking and it’s about what the perpetrator, who’s a teenager, and the victim go through after the kid who attempted to carjack Claude shoots him.
The bullet went through his jaw and there’s a whole thing about the surgeries he had to have. The kid himself was shot and paralyzed by a woman who he attempted to also carjack, she was armed and she shot him and he got put in a wheelchair. It’s the kind of story that’s easy to be horrified by but you also have to realize that this is real life and these are real people. It really humanizes everyone in the mix ranging from the victim’s family to the woman who defended herself, the perpetrator, his mother who is traumatized by the whole situation, the councillor and even the detective who is a very thoughtful guy. It’s an interesting character study and a window into something that happens a lot, it’s very powerful and it’s a great project so I’m looking forward to being involved with it.