Reggae legend Jimmy Cliff's concert last week was as much a celebration of life as it was a rowdy party. How could it be otherwise when the singer, now 64, demonstrated a vivacity to be envied by humans half his age?
Following brief sets by local acts Planet Jam and Spirit Familia, Cliff led his nine-piece group through almost two hours of music. Constantly in motion, he danced, pranced, wiggled, high-kicked, punched the air, jogged and executed tai-chi-style movements—all while firing his inimitable vocal cannon, a high tenor that sounded as clear and powerful as it does on his records from the '60s and '70s.
The dynamic band showed off rocksteady, dub, soul, pop-rock and, of course, reggae chops. Among the best tunes were gems from the ska era, notably "Miss Jamaica" and "You Can Get It If You Really Want," which benefited from a groovy R&B horn arrangement. Cliff also played some of his crossover covers, such as Cat Stevens' "Wild World" and Johnny Nash's "I Can See Clearly Now." Naturally, there were songs from Cliff's recent comeback album, Rebirth, including "Rebel Rebel," "One More," "World Upside Down" and the dark, scintillating "Bang."
Augmenting the celebratory atmosphere was the instant rapport Cliff struck with the packed audience. He exhorted the fans to wave their arms in unison and bounce on their toes. He engaged them in call-and-response games, with the fans echoing his shouts of "ay-yo-yo" and, simply, "Hey!"
Although the quality of the musical performances was high throughout, Cliff and company really shined on two of his greatest songs: "The Harder They Come," infused with hidden polyrhythms and Motown-style brass blasts; and "Many Rivers to Cross," highlighted by gospel-style organ and Cliff's soulful vocals.
He transformed his classic "Vietnam" into "Afghanistan," its anti-war statement still fully intact. Most of the band took up hand drums to accompany Cliff on the stripped-down "Bongo Man (A Come)," into which was melded a bit of "Rivers of Babylon."
Cliff closed the show with "Wonderful World, Beautiful People," which in the past seemed like an overly simplistic platitude to me. But here, it felt convincing, embodying a true manifesto of irie.