POP MUSIC REVIEW : Jimmy Cliff: Reggae, Willing and Able : The Jamaican singer’s passionate, relentlessly physical performance at the Coach House boils with immediacy. He applies his talents to lighthearted and socially conscious numbers.
“The rebel in me will touch the rebel in you,” Jimmy Cliff sang at the Coach House on Monday, and the Jamaican singer’s ability to touch and inspire an audience indeed seems only to grow stronger over the years.
Cliff first entered a recording studio in 1962, a year before the Rolling Stones cut their first record. But, unlike the moribund, pre-programmed marketing event that Mick Jagger & Co.'s tours have become since, Cliff’s passionate, relentlessly physical performance Monday boiled with immediacy.
Though reggae seemed to be a music clearly defined by its limitations when it began receiving U.S. attention in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, some of its practitioners have advanced it with new influences and a refreshed spirit. Curiously, some of reggae’s liveliest performers are also among its eldest.
Burning Spear and other vets are still engrossing performers, while Cliff and the even more august Toots Hibbert remain the two most exciting post-Bob Marley figures in reggae. Hibbert, on a good night, is practically the Otis Redding of Jamaican music; Cliff may be its Al Green.
Like Green, Cliff makes music that celebrates both the spiritual and the sensual. And, also like Green, he can tear the roof off a venue with his emotive performances. His voice may not have the character and range Green possesses, but he does have the energy and will.
In his 13-song, 100-minute performance Cliff applied his talents equally to lighthearted fare like the bathtub romp “Rub-a-Dub Partner” and to socially conscious numbers including his “Peace.”
That ballad was Cliff at his best, bolstering the reggae rhythm with the upper-register harmonies and layered instrumentation of ‘70s Philly soul, while his richly timbred voice pleaded repeatedly, “How is there going to be peace when there is no justice for the people?”
He was far more effective in putting forth that simple but crucial truth than he was in positing an environmental solution in “Save Our Planet Earth.” The gist of that number--which did have a considerable musical kick--was Cliff’s statement that there are two kinds of people on the planet: “those who want to save it and those who want to destroy it.”
While doubtless there are some gleeful despoilers out there, that oversimplified “us vs. them” idea ignores the real problems, such as the petrochemicals and tons of metal used to transport each of Cliff’s fans to his shows.
Cliff and his eight-piece band were an effective form of alternative energy in themselves, propelling each song with inspired dance and rastaerobics. Unlike some bandleaders who rely on a strict discipline to get a tight performance from their bands, Cliff seemed more to be having a party with his friends. His players often were laughing with the joy of playing, and there were plenty of individual sparks added to the music, particularly from Brazilian percussionist Gabriel Dos Santos.
Other set songs included Cliff’s 1969 hit “Wonderful World, Beautiful People,” “War in Africa,” and his 1972 “The Harder They Come” theme to the film of the same name (which starred Cliff in a tale of the seamy Jamaican music business). Well before Cliff hit his extended encore tune, “Reggae Down Babylon,” the audience in the packed club was up and dancing along with him.