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Jimmy Cliff is quite possibly the greatest living reggae artist. He credits his own work with helping to shape the genre during its infancy in the late '60s and early '70s, and the soundtrack from his 1972 film The Harder They Come, which has become a cult classic, established him as a prominent figure in the music world. Dubbed the "Reggae Ambassador," Cliff is as close as you could come to representing the heritage and tradition of reggae through a single artist.
With that being said, it seems unfortunate that Cliff's Boston performance took place at the Roxy.
THE ROXY ITSELF IS AN ELABORATE AND DECOROUS OLD BALLROOM, TRANSFORMED INTO A DANCE CLUB AND SHOW SPACE WITH A NEON-LIT CIRCULAR BAR AND THREE DISCO BALLS. WHILE PERHAPS A LITTLE ECLECTIC, THE VENUE ITSELF WAS NOT A PROBLEM. THE CROWD, ON THE OTHER HAND, WAS. REGGAE ALLOWS FOR A SYNTHESIS OF STYLES, AND AN OVERALL TOLERANCE FOR ALL PEOPLE. HOWEVER, I DO NOT EXPECT OR WISH TO STAND NEXT TO 30- AND 40-SOMETHING YUPPIES IN SUITS AND TIES RUNNING TO THE SIDES TO ANSWER THEIR CELLPHONES. THEIR PRESENCE WAS A LITTLE BAFFLING, AS MOST OF THEM APPEARED NOT TO BE PARTICULARLY INTERESTED IN THE MUSIC, NOR TO HAVE A CLUE ABOUT REGGAE. PERHAPS THIS ELEMENT WAS OVERFLOW FROM THE LUXURIOUS TREMONT HOTEL, BUT WHATEVER THE CAUSE, IT WAS A DEFINITE DRAIN ON THE INCREDIBLE ENERGY AND GOOD FEELING EMANATING FROM JIMMY CLIFF.
The sextet Entrain opened for Cliff. An odd mix of musicians from Martha's Vineyard, the band played an energetic and varied set, but never quite got the crowd going aside from a few loyal fans. The most colorful band member was an elderly man who dressed like some of my Grandpa's card game buddies, and looked like he belonged driving a tractor instead of laying down a ska line on the trombone. Entrain doesn't have that much of a reggae sound, except for some pseudo-Rastafarian moments (like their recent album title All is One) and their apparent preference for similar chemicals. Any group that bills itself as a combination of "Rock, Blues, Ska, Calypso, Dub, Zydeco, World and Jazz" tends to not be very good in any of these, and Entrain predictably was no exception.
As for the main attraction, Jimmy Cliff still puts on quite a show at age 51. Decked out in various shades of orange and sporting an orange bandanna, Cliff ignited the crowd with his non-stop energy, pausing occasionally to dispense a little of his New Age, save-the-earth philosophy. A few of Cliff's more poignant remarks at the show included statements such as "In space, they call the earth Planet Blue because it's blue. I don't know why they don't call the Earth 'Water,' because there's more water than there is earth." Cliff then offered an alternate creation myth, claiming that Eve was created before Adam. He also showed promise as a future Ec 10 guest lecturer, pointing out that "we've got to choose between ecology and economy. On the one side you've got people that want to save the earth, and on the other you've got people who want to destroy the earth."
Cliff's more recent pop-influenced sound is not nearly as appealing as his original, straightforward reggae. After beginning his set with a number of pop selections from his recent album Humanitarian, Cliff strung together a flurry of hits like "The Harder They Come," "You Can Get It if You Really Want," "I Can See Clearly Now" and "Third World People." Never letting his energy drop for a moment, he remained constantly upbeat to the last song. Still, while he showed that he could maintain the all-out performance levels of his youth, Cliff claimed that he has changed over the years. Reflecting on his 30 years in reggae, Cliff said that "I am still an outlaw in a sense, but I have grown spiritually."
I can't blame anyone for wanting to see Jimmy Cliff live in concert. But at a reggae show, everyone in attendance should respect and appreciate the feel and emotion of reggae. For anyone not willing to do so, this is not your music. We need everyone to build up and maintain the energy of a performance like Jimmy Cliff's, not to tear it down with disrespect.
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