Jimmy Cliff and his band delivered all of the expected musical components within the first strains of their hour-plus set.
The godfather of roots reggae and his ensemble set down a set composed of syncopated beats, choppy 2/2 guitar accompaniment and standards of the genre, including multiple selections from the Harder They Come soundtrack.
But Cliff's performance included deeper cuts and cues, elements that pointed to the roots of the reggae and the richer history of Jamaican music. Since the release of The Harder They Come in 1972, Cliff has stood as an undisputed giant in the reggae genre, having helped to forge the genre from ska and calypso antecedents.
It's a legacy and a musical history that showed clearly in Cliff's mid-afternoon set. Cliff's backup band provided an intro worthy of a heavyweight boxing champion, touting the artist as a "musical legend" and citing his recent induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. With regal horn lines and syncopated rhythms as background, Cliff entered, clad in a yellow long-sleeved shirt and full pants, wearing a tri-colored Jamaican scarf around his neck.
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As he broke into "Wonderful World, Beautiful People," his energy was unrestrained. He gesticulated, he gestured, he cocked his fists and closed his eyes during the more emotional segments of the opening tunes. His opening selection included references to his most historic work -- versions of "Sitting Here in Limbo" and "You Can Get It If You Really Try" from the seminal 1972 album were among the first selections.
Along with a cover of Cat Stevens' "Wild World" and Johnny Nash's "I Can See Clearly Now," Cliff offered passionate and energetic versions of "Rivers of Babylon" and "Save Our Planet Earth." The selection included all of the formative ingredients of roots reggae. Along with the percussion-laden beats and driving bass lines that have come to characterize the genre, the set included hints of dynamic balladry and more free-form major chords. It was the best of the reggae genre stripped down to its beginnings, a thoroughly modern set that included historic antecedents.
It was a fusion of old and new made all the more noteworthy by the sheer stage presence of Cliff himself. He took to the festival's largest stage as if it were an intimate space in a Jamaican dance hall. Just as Toots and the Maytalls' version of John Denver's "Country Roads" redefined the ballad, Cliff's take on "Wild World" was a transformation of the original material into something new.
The 62-year-old showed why he's the only living recipient of Jamaica's Order of Merit, the highest cultural award the country bestows on its native son. With grace and with zeal, Cliff brought back a musical idiom back to its origins. For all that reggae has been appropriated and mutated during the past 40 years, its true power remains in its roots, in the Jamaican folk ballads and rhythmic phrases that helped build a novel art form.