Maybe it’s the reggae beats the DJ is spinning, or the exciting energy that radiates from every being in the room – we’re not sure – but there’s definitely something going on at the Corner tonight that feels different. It isn’t long after walking in that the lights dim and the crowd quietens in anticipation. Everyone knows that, shortly, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Jimmy Cliff will be taking to the stage for one of his few Bluesfest sideshows. The stage is lit up in yellow, revealing myriad instruments, including the large cowhide drum – it’s all there.
Cliff’s nine-member band spills onto the small stage and quickly goes about putting their captivating energy to use by readying the crowd for his arrival. The charismatic trumpet player/backing vocalist introduces the “living legend”, who then dances across the stage to the opening of ‘You Can Get It’, reaching the microphone in time for the first line of the song.
Cliff, who is as famous for his covers as he is his own material, leads into a reggae rendition of Cat Steven’s ‘Wild World’, which naturally encourages a sing-along involving both band and audience. It is now, barely three songs in, that the smell of marijuana wafts through the crowd, turning the air – already heavy with sweat on the thirty-odd degree night – thick and pungent. Somehow it's fitting as the set winds into a musical interlude.
‘Planet Earth’, arguably the song that best demonstrates Cliff’s passion for the environment, is slowly introduced and the similarly themed ‘World Upsidedown’ follows. These tracks from Cliff’s latest full-length offering, 2012’s Rebirth (produced by Rancid’s Tim Armstrong), slide into the set seamlessly, as though they have always existed within the Cliff songbook. It makes sense that they are followed by a contemporised version of the 1969 track ‘Vietnam’, which tonight becomes ‘Afghanistan’.
Cliff exudes playfulness as he re-enacts of scenes from the 1973 movie in which he starred, The Harder They Come, followed by the song of the same name. He takes a quick break to retrieve a guitar, which he plays left handed for ‘I Can See Clearly’. It's a classic song for showcasing his unmistakable voice, which is as clear and melodious live as it has come across in recordings over the years.
The set continues to build into a well-rounded collection of songs; however Cliff’s album The Power and the Glory feels a tad underrepresented. One of its tracks, ‘Reggae Night’ bursts forth from the stage and makes itself known late in the set. Its drum-driven party vibes bounce around the room, inciting the most energy from both crowd and performers compared to any other during the night. ‘Journey’, a crowd request (and also from the 1983 album), pops up during an encore.
From anyone else, four encores might have seemed indulgent, but with 40-plus years as a performer up the sleeves of his golden fringed robe, Cliff has the goods to back it up. He extends the set by at least 30 minutes, jumping off stage only to reappear a few minutes later to the impatient demands of his audience. In the end, Cliff – who does not look his 64 years – totals just over two hours of soulful, vibrant music, high kicks, booty shaking and hip thrusting.
Honestly, we’re having a hard time faulting this one; the material Jimmy Cliff is releasing now has just as much relevance and is of just as high a quality as his earlier works and live, he and his band work the stage masterfully, just as we would expect. Pure entertainment from a living legend, who saunters off stage after having kissed the hands of those in the front row, his microphone in hand, his message of peace and love echoing long after he slips from sight.