NEW YORK - MARCH 15: Inductee Jimmy Cliff performs onstage at the 25th Annual Rock And Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony at the Waldorf=Astoria on March 15, 2010 in New York City. (Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Jimmy Cliff
Sure, the 63-year-old reggae legend talked a bit between some of the songs in his acoustic 75-minute set, but he came nowhere close to the kind of talking needed to justify the “story” qualification on both the show announcements and actual tickets.
To me, when a performance gets billed like that and isn’t just the natural result of an especially chatty host, that means you’re in for some “This one time back when I was running around the streets of Kingston as a teenager...” or “So, I was smoking this spliff with Robin Williams and Peter O’Toole on the set of Club Paradise...” type of s---. And while he did have more than just “thank you” and “blessings” to say throughout the evening, we never heard anything but (and don’t get me wrong, they were still interesting) brief explanations on the genesis of selections from the set list.
“This song was written before we even knew the word reggae,” he said before playing “Wonderful World, Beautiful People.” “It was not considered reggae at the time; it was just considered a great song. It was a sentiment I felt then and it’s what we need in the world today.”
And before “Sitting in Limbo,” the recent Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee explained, “I wrote this some time ago. And I recorded this song in Alabama, of all places. Most people didn’t know that. Music is music. It’s a universal language. It’s beyond politics and religion. And this is a place we’ve all been in our lives at some point.”
Perhaps it had something to do with the obnoxious and continuous din of the inebriated crowd, who never seemed to quite understand they were watching a three-piece acoustic show that was supposed to have a “story” element to it (although I’m not sure how that is since it was printed on their ticket.) We’ll never know.
But the upside of it all was that what the crowd lacked in politeness and sophistication, they trumped with energy and enthusiasm. I had never been to a show where every song (and I mean EVERY song) had a feverish call-and-response section to it, but Wednesday’s did. Decked out in a black fedora, jacket, and pants, a bright yellow shirt, and what looked like red bowling shoes lifted straight from the alleys, Mr. Cliff whipped the sold-out house into a participatory frenzy during every single number. And even more impressively, his voice boomed out with such a command and strength for the entire evening that it was hard to believe it was coming from a man who has been performing for a half-century.
But it’s exactly that experience which makes Mr. Cliff so slick. Without missing a beat, he acknowledged both Johnny Nash and the movie Cool Runnings before he played “I Can See Clearly Now,” and effortlessly got political before adjusting the title to his Dylan-approved peace anthem, “Viet Nam,” and singing it as “Afghanistan.”
“This is an anti-war song,” Cliff rallied. “The rebel in me could not resist writing a song like this. And it’s coming around again. We see it going on again and a lot of us, most of us, don’t agree with it. So we want to send out a message to all the leaders of the world -- We the people don’t want another Viet Nam in Afghanistan!”
Ironically, the one time he did mention the word “story” between songs was one the shortest and strangest transitions of the night.
“Can I tell you a story?” the dynamic icon quietly asked the jabbering crowd. “This was going to be a song I had originally wanted to do with Whitney Houston. As you know, now, we’re not going to be able to do it. So I’m going to sing this song as a tribute to her.”
Because he didn’t mention song titles, it was impossible for anyone there to understand that he was switching a planned new one, “Ruby Soho,” for 1990’s “Rebel in Me” (I certainly didn’t until I saw the set list.) But like everything else that night, none of the small details seemed to matter. It was all just about being in the presence of Jimmy. He crafted an amazing performance and created a palpable energy that was impossible to deny. From the opening notes of “Trapped,” to the dozens of handshakes and high-fives he gave before leaving the stage at the conclusion of “You Can Get It If You Really Want,” it seemed as though everyone there, whether yapping or riveted in silence, had a smile on their face and was exactly where they wanted to be. And Cliff more than delivered on the promise he made when he first stepped on stage at the beginning of the night:
“Good evening and good love to all.”