Friday, March 23, 2018

Will Calhoun: A Tribute

There are musicians that you simply like and then there are musicians who literally change your life. For me that happens when they show me something fresh in their musical expression and/or a different way to approach my instrument. When either of those happen the amount of gratitude I have is always without measure. For me, one of those musicians is the amazing Will Calhoun who is best known as the drummer of Living Colour. 

Like many music fans I first became aware of the band when the video for Cult of Personality appeared on MTV. I loved the song and was just as impressed with later singles like Open Letter (to a Landlord) and then Type. Then a college friend of mine strongly suggested that I buy their albums because their other songs were even better. I acted on that suggestion one particular day when I was at a record store in Long Beach, CA called The Tape and Record Room, which is where I bought most of my bootleg and import records. On this particular visit I saw two used cassettes of the band's first two albums Vivid & Time's Up and this poor college kid couldn't beat the price of $3.00 for each.

For some people purchasing a pre-owned item of value excites when a long search has finally come to end, especially if they were able to get the item at a reasonable price. In my case it was something different because I left the store that day with a good feeling even though I really didn't know a lot about the albums I had just purchased. I just knew that something special was about to happen like those moments in life when you meet someone and know that something amazing is about to happen. 

Getting Acquainted  

When I first heard Vivid I couldn't believe what was coming through my speakers. Since this blog is about the influence Calhoun had on my drumming I can't really comment on each song even though I could spend hours discussing how each song made an impact on my drumming. Instead I'll choose a few standouts and do my best to explain how Calhoun changed my perspective on my instrument.

Middleman was the first song that stood out to me because of the smooth groove on the verses as well as the beautiful two-handed ride pattern on the choruses. I really admired the fact that the same drummer who pounded the groove on Cult of Personality could be so sophisticated on this song. It was a great lessons on the impact on dynamics as well as feel.

The next song that floored me was Funny Vibe as the song was both intense as well as funky. I love how the groove had some real drive to it yet featured some beautiful hi-hat work. I also loved the now familiar beautiful two-handed ride work on the guitar solo as he a had a special way of painting a picture with the bell and the open hi-hat. By this point Calhoun was already becoming one of my favorite drummers and I hadn't even finished listening to the whole album.

The song Broken Hearts is something I describe as beautifully painful. The singing is the painful part to listen to while the groove is the most beautiful thing on the record. This song just takes me on a roller coaster of emotions, which I would soon learn is a big part of the band's music. Later on when I started to buy their home videos I began to see that this band was something special in a live setting and couldn't wait to have my chance to see them in person:

Once the final song of Vivid ended I had my first breath of musical fresh air in years. At that time I was a 19 year old kid that had been rocking out for years with the Metal music of that era. I was playing in a local Progressive Metal band that was starting to make a name for itself locally and while I loved the music we were playing (this also included songs that I wrote) I felt drawn to the idea of doing something different.

The Point of No Return 

The first album came to an end and I was anxious to hear the first track on Time's Up. Little did I know that even though it was the same band that they went in a totally different direction. Aside from the songs being magical they were all very different from each other as they drew on so many different musical genres. Still, they all seemed to go together in this collection of 15 songs, which to me showed some serious brilliance in their songwriting. That's why to this day I think that this album is their masterpiece.

The title track was not what I expected but it was absolutely stunning. How does the band that comes out with some Rock/Funk on a track like Funny Vibe come up with a heavy rocker that rivals bands like Anthrax and Metallica? Under it all was Calhoun's absolute dominance of the song. Very few drummers can deliver power, precision and chops in such an amazing way. His performance is absolutely breathtaking because I am convinced that no one on this planet could duplicate what he did on this track:

If there was a song that I can say was the most important song I heard in my late teens/early 20's it was Elvis is Dead. What does this song do to a young rocker playing an 11-piece drum set in a Progressive Metal band? Truthfully, I wanted to toss out all of my extra toms and start throwing down some serious beats! This song was all about the groove in it's purist form. It has heart, it has feel and it certainly steers the ship. It still gives me chills to this day.

The last song on this album I will comment on is Information Overload. There was a time when I transcribed many of Calhoun's drum parts and this song was the hardest of all. There are so many changes in almost every measure with most measures having many complex parts. The verses are pounding with a solid groove but the fills into between the breaks in the riff are just perfect. But I love how he goes to the ride at 2:17 and produces an almost floating effect with that beautiful two-handed riding that he is known for. I love how he syncopates the bell to start the section and then drives in with quarter notes in order to take it up a notch. Then we get to the guitar solo section, which to me is a work of genius. I love how at 3:32 he goes back to that pounding feel we heard in the verses before he goes back to the ride at 4:00, which again helps the groove take off. The two handed ride pattern that goes into the syncopated part of his groove is gorgeous yet he is still rocking out as only Calhoun can. Then there is that fill that starts at 4:13 that acts as a nice interruption to the solo as it really fit the theme of the overload!!!! Finally, that entrance into the final verse at 4:40 is just amazing. If there was an example of great feel in a Heavy Rock song it is this one. As far as I'm concerned it's one of Calhoun's most masterful performances. It made me want to start putting together some real interesting patterns in the songs I was playing as well.

When I finished hearing this album for the first time I knew that I had just heard one of the greatest Rock albums ever recorded. I don't care what the critics say or even what even some of my closest peers say. This album is a treasure of American music.

Staying the Course

Now I was a devoted Living Colour fan so there was no used cassettes on my radar when their next album came out. I was there on the day it was released with Stain being one of my favorites ever! (my last blog tells the whole story: Of course, Calhoun's performance was absolutely stunning and continued to have an impact on me during my younger years.

Go Away starts with an awesome drum fill that demonstrates Calhoun's awesome power. The opening is tight and reflects the mood of Corey Glover's vocals in the song. The pre-chorus has a nice tom layered groove before kicking into the chorus, which is a combination of hard pounding with some nice hi-hat work. Then we get to the guitar solo section, which starts at 2:30 and Calhoun pounds a nice half time beat that drives the band. The bass line is a two measure phrase and it's so awesome how Calhoun does a two measure fill at 2:34 and 2:46 because he starts it halfway through the bass line, which means he has to finish it at the same spot during the next go round of the riff. It's a simple idea but it has a totally different sound than what we're used to hearing in most two measure drum fills. Finally, being a big fan of his groove I absolutely love the groove of the last chorus, which starts 3:11.

Sometimes the drummer's job is to take sit in the driver's seat and announce: this is the way we're going! On the track Auslander Calhoun lays down the groove with a feel that only he can do. On the choruses he pushes it a bit harder with some nice triplet double bass work that again reflects the mood of Glover's vocals. Aside from the, the bridge features some nice electronic additions that provide a nice industrial sound to Calhoun's pounding. It's a simple tune but it stays in your head. 25 years later, I still catch myself walking with this groove in my head.

It was really hard to choose a final song to comment on but since we're talking a lot about groove I chose Postman, which is a dark song with some amazing guitar and bass work. However, the riffs work because the foundation under it is unbreakable. The verses are a straight ahead groove but one that any drummer would be bobbing their head to because it is performed by a true professional. Of course the choruses features more of Calhoun's trademark two-hand right patterns with some nice China cymbal additions that add to the dark theme of the song. Sometimes simple is better but we have to remember that it's also how you play the simple. In this case, the performance was masterful.

Always on the Radar

Sadly, the band disbanded in the mid-90's and while it was sad for me to hear the news my musical background knew that this is part of the life of any musician. And, with a band this talented it's not hard to guess that they had some real differences and/or simply wanted to do something else. Once the band reunited they did so while each member continued to do other things, which probably is the thing that keeps them together since they still have the ability to stretch themselves. With that being said, we can hear how the music has changed, which is evidence of the band  members going away for a while to do other things musically before bringing back these experiences to the latest project.

Here are some examples of how Calhoun brought so many of those musical experiences back to the band with his amazing grooves and orchestrations of sounds:

Nightmare City:


Burned Bridges


Come On:

Two Sides:

In the Moment 

Living Colour is one of those bands that you have to see and hear live because the energy they bring is unparalleled. To do this Calhoun has to take his drumming to the next level and do that every single night! As you will see in the following examples he can take a song that is already a fine recorded performance and give it the extra fire needed to provide the audience with an amazing live experience:

Desperate People:

Middle Man:

Cult of Personality:

Finally, Calhoun is a complete musician and has written two of the band's best songs in their totality He continues to contribute to the band in their collaborations, which says a lot about his musicianship as a composer because he is already working with some musical giants. I have said for years that if you want to learn to drum better that you should learn to play other instruments because knowing the language of melody and harmony will do wonders to your knowledge of rhythm.



Thank you 

In January of 2016 I had the chance to meet Calhoun for the first time at NAMM in Anaheim, CA. I didn't talk to him that long because being a professional drummer myself I don't go fan boy with anyone. But, just like I do with the drummers in my hometown who are great players, I never refrain from sharing the great things that I hear in their playing. In Calhoun's case I also wanted to thank him for all of the inspiration he has given me over the years.

I greeted him, asked if I could shake his hand, which he was more than happy to oblige and then thanked him for all of the years that his drumming has had such an influence on me. He was gracious and thanked me for my kindness and then I simply asked him if I could take a picture with him. He nodded, we took a few pictures and then I shook his hand again and wished him well. Throughout our brief discussion he was an absolute gentleman and that meant as much to me as his music.

Thank you Will Calhoun. I will never forget the mark that you made on my musical life.

Carlos Solorzano

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