Jimmy Cliff is a reggae legend. Let’s just get that out of the way right now. Active for almost 60 years, he helped popularise reggae music internationally. I saw him at the Clapham Grand in 2014 where, in his mid-60s, he was sprightly and in fine fettle vocally. It was one of the most joyous experiences of my life so I made sure to catch him when I could – performances at indigO2 and Somersault Festival proved every bit as life-affirming.
Back on the touring circuit, it is with great anticipation that I, and over 1000 other attendees, gathered in London’s Roundhouse to witness his return. With a band of 10 musicians / singers / general cheerleaders in tow, the godfather walks onstage. Sitting down to play bongos for ‘Bongo Man’, Cliff and his entourage morph it into a medley, slipping in ‘The Rivers of Babylon’ among others. It’s a protracted start and it’s not until ‘Treat The Youths Right’ that the crowd starts moving. However, it soon becomes clear that the last few years have taken their toll. Whereas before Cliff was supple, dancing and kicking his way through songs, tonight there is a stiffness and his movements are limited.
While his voice is not consistently strong, he is still capable of hitting some emotive highs. He tends to pass vocals over to the male / female backup singers around halfway through some songs; call and response moments with the audience also help to take the pressure off. But if that’s what is needed to conserve his energy and allow that voice to ring out across the opening verse of ‘Many Rivers To Cross’, then it’s a well-judged sacrifice. Some sound issues attempt to interrupt the steadily building momentum but music this pure cannot be thwarted. Arms sway for his brilliant cover of Yusuf Islam’s ‘Wild World’ and by the time ‘Wonderul World, Beautiful People’ appears, excitement has reached fever pitch and the crowd jumps and dances along.
There’s a good range of material on display, from 60s ska like ‘King of Kings’, 70s anti-war anthem ‘Vietnam’ and 80s party number ‘Reggae Night’. His version of ‘Hakuna Matata’ sees eyes roll from some of the less pliable punters but there’s enough elsewhere to satisfy fans of every decade. Ending with tailor-made closer ‘One More’, he returns to the stage to play ‘Journey’ (both from 2012’s ‘Rebirth’) and closes with one of his best, ‘Under The Sun, Moon and Stars’. As ever with an artist so prolific, plenty of great songs don’t make the cut. What I wouldn’t give to hear anything off of 1976’s fantastic ‘Follow My Mind’ album or my favourite track, ‘Struggling Man’! But judging purely on what we got? Despite a slow start, his shows remain unquestionably uplifting, almost spiritual experiences.
Legends like Jimmy Cliff may be as susceptible to the ravages of time as us mere mortals, but with so many timeless songs, his music will continue to bring smiles to faces for countless years to come.