Jimmy Cliff. Photo: Facebook.com/jimmycliffmusic
As I am ever the hopeless-romantic, the iconic image of Jimmy Cliff as the outlaw Ivanhoe “Ivan” Martin with the ready, go stance with guns drawn plays into my love for the rebel. My true appreciation for Cliff began with seeing him star as an aspiring reggae artist who turns outlaw (Martin) in the legendary film Harder They Come. Cliff’s 2013 U.S. tour, named the “Many Rivers Crossed” tour, is coinciding alongside the rerelease of the film into theaters across the country. I had marked the night of this gig months in advance. I was going to see this gig or die trying. Arriving at the Depot, I almost sprinted up the stairs to the second floor, while trying not to crash into any unfortunate souls in my way. Luckily, no loss of life was needed as I made it there without incident.
I am a pretty big reggae fan and have seen some great acts in my day. However, seeing Jimmy Cliff is something special. His work influenced bands like The Clash, specifically in the reggae-influenced song “The Guns of Brixton,” where a verse makes reference to the film “You see, he feels like Ivan/Born under the Brixton sun/His game is called survivin' at the end of the harder they come.” This number is also covered by Cliff in his Sacred Fire EP, which he produced with Tim Armstrong (Rancid.) He is also involved in social causes, more notably his anti-war activities. In the 1960s he wrote his famous anti-war reggae number “Vietnam” that came out on his self-titled album Jimmy Cliff.
After scouring the merch tables and picking up a shirt with an iconic image of Martin, I settled down for a drink. I had just caught the end of the first act, Cool Jordan. Led by an acoustic guitar with some heavy bass lines, they sounded like some modern pop folk group, inspired by 90’s reggae. While upbeat, it lacked the energy to keep my attention focused. The next opening act, Ethan Tucker of Olympia, Wash., played an acoustic set as well. His material was very upbeat. However, this too sounded like some watered down ’90s pop reggae, kind of like Sublime or Bruno Mars. Tucker provided a nice relaxed atmosphere, and maintained a captive audience. It reminded me of what one would expect in a café during an open mic. Though, after a bit, I had trouble differentiating between the first and second acts as they sounded too much alike.
Despite the seemingly captive audience, once Tucker departed from the stage, the room filled to the brim with people, coming out of the woodwork to see and hear the legendary reggae artist. With baited breath I watched as the stage filled with the backing band. Jimmy Cliff’s entrance onto the stage was something akin to a holy experience. He was wearing a white jacket with white pants, kind of like a track suit. On the arms of the jacket were sparkles, so when he came onto the stage, he seemed to reflect with a sort of glimmering light onto the audience.
Jimmy Cliff commanded the stage throughout his performance. If there were any doubts regarding his ability, they were quickly dashed as he hopped all over the place, playing various instruments, and even doing a “duck walk” (made famous by Chuck Berry) while playing his guitar. The crowd ate up every moment of it. He knocked out classics like the upbeat “Wonderful World, Beautiful People.” His set included some new material from his Sacred Fire EP, “World Upside Down.” He even played “Wild World” (Cat Stevens.) In between each song he took time to tell stories, offering social commentary on the world today, criticizing politicians of both the right and left as blood sucking parasites, much to the ecstatic approval of the crowd. He told of his participation in opposing the war in Vietnam and his rewriting of his classic song “Vietnam” to address the war in Afghanistan.
Throughout the show there was constant reference to the film The Harder They Come, especially evident when he played “Rivers of Babylon” (Melodians), a roots reggae tune that is a welcome favorite, and inspires crowd participation. Cliff followed up with other well-known numbers, like the soothing reggae hit “Johnny Too Bad” (The Slickers) and his classic and tour’s namesake “Many Rivers to Cross.” He even played a personal favorite, “Sitting Here in Limbo”––a slow, reflective song with soft, soothing vocals. When he played “The Harder They Come” it cinched the deal, as the audience jived, twisted and sung along.
One would think that after about two hours of playing a solid show, one encore would be enough. But no, Jimmy Cliff knocked out three impressive encores with the same energy that he put into the rest of the show. The guy seemed to give it his all for the whole performance. This alone was inspiring. For his last encore, he performed “I Can See Clearly Now” (Johnny Nash), much to the delight of the audience. I can safely say my soul has been touched by this experience, and I can see clearly now.