December 9th, 2011 | Live reviews

Jimmy Cliff - a prophet to get you offit

Have you ever had someone from the periphery of your experience suddenly come into full focus, like the goofy kid who rises up to become the songwriter of your band, or your friend’s mousy sister who turns out to be the hottest fuck of your life (and then your soul mate)? This is how I feel in the afterglow of seeing Jimmy Cliff at Friday night’s secret show.

I admit, I’d always kind of tucked Jimmy Cliff away into the background of my Jamaican music appreciation. I saw him as the cool older brother of Bob Marley, less tainted by frat boys singing his greatest hits but still suffering from 80s cheese and his appearance in a Robin Williams vehicle. But after seeing Jimmy Cliff play at a private party Friday night, at a huge practice space tucked away in the shadows of Burbank Airport (I had to call someone’s intern to get my name on a list), I quite honestly believe Cliff may be the hottest soul singer I’ve ever seen perform. He has a spirit and enthusiasm NOW, at my dad’s age, that can humble anyone this side of Prince, and his current lineup has the spirit of a forgotten time, a time far richer musically than many of the things Cliff has done in the past 40 years.

I didn’t quite have the same epiphany about Rancid’s Tim Armstrong, though he impressed me too. Turns out, he’s the man who’s single-handedly spearheaded Cliff’s triumphant return to hipdom. Friday night, nearly all of the gear had “RANCID” stenciled onto it, and what gear! Vintage amps, a Hammond AND a Vox organ, and a bunch of great horn and geetar players made the sound glow with the warm familiarity of solid late 60’s production. Even the players dressed classy, in suits, though Armstrong himself in his tats, untucked shirt, and wicked eyebrows wilder than the rats of NIMH, never really escaped looking like the culmination of a more “checkered” ska-punk past.

Tim Armstrong

The audience wasn’t dressed like you’d expect for a Jimmy Cliff show, either. In fact, this guy was the ONLY PERSON WITH DREADLOCKS!

Instead, much of the audience members were friends of the band, or were hotshots in the music industry, or were photographers, or had sang in Fishbone, or were aged beatific-looking boomers in woven berets, or were the children of one of the above. Cliff loved this last component of the audience, inviting the children with his words and friendliness to linger in the front of the crowd cross-legged and agape at what we all agreed would be the memory of a lifetime.

And I was right there with them. Cliff started with “You Can Get It,” his hit from The Harder They Come, and almost immediately he started twirling, jumping, and in the tradition of Chuck Berry, even duck walking. I couldn’t even get a photo that wasn’t blurry as hell!

Jimmy Cliff shoots an arrow into your soul

That got my attention, but what melted my heart was that voice. Oh my god. I pride myself on being able to capture the sound of music in words, but there really is no way to convey what came out of that man’s throat and into our hearts Friday night. The closest I can get is to say that he sounded effortless and full of love, like butter melting slowly over Mom’s pancakes. He sounded awake and alert, classy, not cluttered in Rastafarian claptrap but “transcendent” in as close to a literal meaning as an atheist like me can believe in.

Jimmy Cliff

It was an updated sound, too, as much as it was a celebration of the 60s sound he came out of. He changed his song “Viet Nam” to be about Afghanistan, he paid tribute to Joe Strummer and the Clash with his cover of their “Guns of Brixton” (the lyrics of which referenced his character from The Harder They Come, so this was a bit like when Kraftwerk covered Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock”) and he introduced every song with a little mention of the audience, as if his lyrics were concepts applicable to us in the room, right now, as opposed to sentiments meant for our parents’ world of cheap oil, boiling-hot Cold Wars and unabashed, institutionalized racism.  Even his cover of “I Can See Clearly Now” seemed like he decided to cover it today, for us, giving it his melodious all, and dancing up a storm, as though he’d never crooned it 20 years ago in a field of grass between montages from the movie Cool Runnings.

Does it seem like I’m being a little flippant? Maybe so, but it’s a coping mechanism. It’s hard to convey just how wonderful this evening was. I was moved and entertained, wowed by the vocal mastery and by the lyricism.

As we headed out into the streets, still very early in the night, I wanted to clasp hands with my friends, to smile, to encourage love by being love—a shockingly spiritual, nearly Christian sentiment! Was Cliff’s history of “graduating” from religions affecting me? I sauntered to the car, beaming, completely sober, and still a sinner. But now I had a lot of warmth to bring with me into the cold night air.

-Dan Collins