Jimmy Cliff, Liquid Rooms, Edinburgh

Bob Flynn
Thursday 19 September 2013 02:07

Now almost exactly 30 years on from when he was absolutely pivotal to the breakthrough of reggae into white consciousness, it was utterly thrilling and not a little sad to see the 56-year-old Jimmy Cliff in Edinburgh's small and sweaty Liquid Rooms.

The venue, admittedly, was packed to the gunwales but he could have been a contender for megastardom and the stadiums. In fact, in 1973, he was, alongside Island records label-mate, Bob Marley, the first to convert Kingston's radical, ghetto music into global currency with the soundtrack for Jamaica's first and best indigenous feature film, The Harder They Come.

He also starred in the movie and now, despite looking a little grizzled and piratical in a purple beret and bandanna, you could still glimpse the whippet-thin gun-toting rude boy in Perry Henzell's docu-realist drama. It was far from perfect but said all there was to say about Jamaica then: the corruption and the poverty, the shantytowns in the heat and desperation.

Body-shaking, criminally infectious reggae was the film's pulse and the soundtrack was a quintessential collection with Cliff contributing four songs, all classics. Then, with a seminal album and film behind him, Cliff seemed to falter and fade into the long shadow of Marley the blessed, appearing only sporadically ever since.

Slipping quietly back on to the tour circuit, this is Cliff revitalised with a new album, Fantastic Plastic People produced by Dave Stewart. But let's face it, it was memories of The Harder They Come which brought us here to see the man who briefly flirted with the global stardom which awaited him after hits such as "Many Rivers To Cross" and "You Can Get It If You Really Want".

And the chugging, pumping ska groove of that track opens the show, still able to move an entire room into instantaneous dancing frenzy. From the glorious opening line, sung in Cliff's high, sweet tenor, the most staid Edinburghers were jumping and swaying. The amazing thing is the song hasn't aged one second, as fresh and as vital as the first hearing with Cliff jiving, spinning and high-stepping like a 19-year-old, lost in the sheer rhythmic joy of it all.

From that exhilarating start it was clear this was no easy run through but a revival of the spirit of pop reggae. The seven-piece band are a serious outfit complete with blaring horns and thunderous bass as Cliff literally jogs into "Reggae Man", feeding through to "War In Jerusalem" which spreads into a massive dub.

But even the most ardent Cliff fan would cringe at the embarrassingly naive lyrics to "Terror", his strangely jingoistic take on the Twin Towers attack. This from one of reggae's great lyricists who wrote what Bob Dylan himself declared the greatest protest song, "Vietnam", which Cliff sings with genuine passion.

Sadly, like Dylan, the new material is muffled and clunky beside the urgency of his early songs and it is a relief when Cliff burst into "Many Rivers To Cross", still able to carry that heart-stopping melody.

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Near the end, showing no signs of flagging, Cliff delivers "The Harder They Come" and it is like a jolt of electricity has passed through the crowd already drenched with sweat and wreathed in smiles.

OK, it was a night of greatest hits from a man who glimpsed a top 10 chart in well over a decade. But what hits, and with Cliff bouncing with energy and in spectacular voice it proved to be one of the most intoxicating concerts this year.

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