Jimmy Cliff review – a joyful jamboree

Clapham Grand
A musical masterclass from the legendary Jamaican underlines reggae's enduring ability to spark communal elation

"I am a freedom fighter for peace, love and justice," announces the reggae Elvis, complete with garish jumpsuit, as he introduces a version of his 1969 anti-war song Vietnam, updated to decry the Afghanistan conflict as well as Iraq, Gaza and Nigeria. His audience of blissful skankers cheer politely. The political protest slant of reggae looks to have lost its bite since Jimmy Cliff popularised the form worldwide with his soundtrack to 1972's Jamaican crime movie The Harder They Come, starring Cliff himself; few insurrections of the past 40 years, after all, have kicked off at beach barbecues or wedding discos. But as tonight's two-hour masterclass resoundingly proves, reggae's ability to spark the communal elation of a gentle, family-friendly rave remains undimmed.

Taking to a stage full of musicians hammering bongos bedecked with the colours of the Jamaican flag, Cliff remains, at 66, a sprightly and charismatic presence, breaking into bursts of frivolous granddad dancing when the Sowetan gospel of Bongo Man gives way to choruses from the Melodians' Rivers of Babylon. His free-form liveliness and clear thrill in performance never falters, whether overseeing an attempted coup between safari animals on King of Kings, reapplying his revolutionary stripe on Rebel Rebel, a track from 2012's celebrated comeback album Rebirth, or indulging his honeycomb croon on classics such as You Can Get It If You Really Want, Cat Stevens's Wild World, Many Rivers to Cross, and Johnny Nash's I Can See Clearly Now. Rare among his peers, his vocals still gleam, unblemished by time's cruel tonsil skewer.

At times, Cliff ventures into Lion King schmaltz – he covers Hakuna Matata, for Jah's sake – and he plays about 38 encores too many. But between a touching a capella Welcome Home – dedicated to London, where Cliff lived during the 60s – and sunny ska favourites like The Harder They Come, Wonderful World, Beautiful People and The Slickers' classic wailer Johnny Too Bad, he whips up a joyful jamboree that feels like it might skank all night. Keep fighting, rebel king.


Mark Beaumont

The GuardianTramp

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