Larmer Tree Festival, Dorset
Sunday 19th July 2015
21.15 – 22.45
vocal / trumpet / percussion
female backing vocal / percussion
Rivers of Babylon
You Can Get It If You Really Want
This Is My Love Song
Under The Sun, Moon and Stars
I Can See Clearly Now
The Harder They Come
Many Rivers To Cross
King of Kings
Wonderful World, Beautiful People
Treat The Youths Right
The Larmer Tree Festival was at its best on Sunday. For some reason, high up on Cranborne Chase in Dorset, the cloud formations are very special. We had seen Snowapple from Holland, and Raghu Dixit from India (linked). The early evening was comedian Bill Bailey. We wisely decided to eat during his set … I can’t see the point of stand up comedy in front of thousands of people – who are also standing up. We drifted in after our Mexican Vegetarian special, halfway through his set to watch. A huge crowd, more than Bellowhead or The Levellers on Thursday. They were standing, quite grimly we thought, listening. We could hear vague laughs here and there at the front. It sounded to me like something I’d have found mildly interesting on the car radio, but no more. We wandered off in search of a sheep’s milk ice cream instead. We had spoken to people earlier who were eagerly looking forward to Bill Bailey. Then they were going home after his set.
‘What about Jimmy Cliff?’ I said.
‘Oh, yes. Didn’t he have some hits in the 70s?’
We’re talking about the essential soundtrack of my mid-20s. Paul McCartney had said he was heavily into the Reggae Chartbusters albums from Trojan Records (in Britain and Jamaica, Trojan was a make of trucks, not condoms). Paul Simon did Mother & Child Reunion. We started listening avidly to Reggae Chartbusters and had graduated to Jimmy Cliff long before the film The Harder They Come.
Jimmy Cliff was born in 1948, and recording Miss Jamaica by 1962, aged 14. Island Records picked it up and released it in Britain. Island thought him the jewel in their crown. He had chart hits with Wonderful World, Beautiful People and Vietnam, the latter described by Bob Dylan as the ‘greatest protest song ever written.’ Then he covered Cat Stevens’ Wild World for another hit. Chris Blackwell of Island Records promoted The Harder They Come and was devastated when Jimmy Cliff sought a major label after its success. He had planned on making Jimmy Cliff the first world reggae superstar. Jimmy left Island Records … and Blackwell turned his attentions to Bob Marley instead.But Jimmy Cliff is indeed a reggae superstar, both as a singer and as a composer … I’d venture to say the greatest living one.
So back to the concert. There was a huge exodus of people after Bill Bailey (their places would be filled by the wise ones who had been watching actual music shows in the tents or eating during his set), so there was a sudden gap in the arena. We walked straight to the front … a row of people were sitting to hold their spaces against the barrier, but we were in the second standing row. My five foot tall wife had had no hope of actually SEEING Jimmy Cliff, but here we were one row back. Even better, a couple moved off the barrier 20 minutes into the show (volume, I assume) so she got right on the barrier.
It had meant standing for 35 minutes watching the band sound check one by one, but it was worth it. For a start, watching the drummer soundcheck (partly) solved that trademark metallic drum flourish in several Jimmy Cliff songs. I’d thought it was some kind of steel drum, but there were two sets of mini-sized tom-toms on the kit and that appears to be it, at least nowadays. The band gradually assembled, one at a time in their Jimmy Cliff T-shirts. The second vocalist / trumpet player appeared to be the leader, and said ‘Ready!’ and they launched into an instrumental. There is a mild problem with setlists as I think they added several little bits from other songs.
Bongo Man – opening song
When Jimmy Cliff emerged he walked straight to a chair, and sat down at the bongos, four other musicians moved to a line of bongos for Bongo Man. The crowd immediately went wild, even more so when he got to his feet and segued into Rivers of Babylon with everybody, band and audience singing along. In the UK, we tend to remember the Bony M number one hit, but everyone knows the song and Jimmy Cliff does it better, as had its composers, The Melodians, long before Bony M..
You Can Get It If You Really Want was written by Jimmy Cliff, though Desmond Dekker had the earlier #2 hit with a faithful cover in 1970. Then Jimmy Cliff reclaimed it in The Harder They Come. This has that piercing trumpet part and was just so good. At this point I was comparing Jimmy Cliff to the very best performers I’ve ever seen, boosted by one of the most infectious reggae songs ever. The mood was just … joy. It just doesn’t get better than this at live shows. It was loud right at the front, but there was none of the balance problems that Bellowhead had close up. The five string bass was perfectly articulated … always the thing that can go fuzzy.
Rebel Rebel comes from Rebirth in 2012 (no connection to the David Bowie song) and has that wonderful trilling tringtringtring start. There’s a good YouTube of the same band performing it in Austria a year ago.
Wild World is reggae-lite, if it’s reggae at all. it’s rather the early 70s style of lightly-reggaefied songs from other genres, here Cat Stevens. This was a UK #8 hit in 1970, and my goodness, did we all know every word of it.
This Is My Love Song is another with a 2015 version on YouTube (same jacket and hat too). That’s the title given on SetList com and YouTube. I’m not sure where it comes from. It doesn’t come up on amazon, iTunes or Discogs, so I suspect it’s the wrong title. Great song.
Under The Sun, Moon and Stars is an audience sing-a-long – the original version started with minimal accompaniment on Unlimited – the album that marked his switch to major labels (EMI in the UK, Reprise in the USA) in 1973-74. It was much more vigorous live.
I Can See Clearly Now was one I bought new by Johnny Nash in 1972 … Johnny Nash was from Texas, so wasn’t really a reggae artist, even if he recorded in Jamaica and had a hit with a cover of Stir It Up. Jimmy Cliff re-did it for the film Cool Running and had a hit with it in 1994, and Jimmy Cliff’s version is superior on record, and even better live. It was a major hit (UK #5) by Johnny Nash, so added to the parade of 70s hits as well as adding a 90s one.
Reggae Night is from The Power and The Glory in 1983 and achieves a strange combination of sounding reggae, but also very early 80s. It’s got a big and obvious melody, so again “Eighties Hit” feel.
The Harder They Come, title track of the film … by then we were marvelling at the sheer energy and exuberance of Cliff and his band, and also that they had the whole audience moving, waving, jumping.
Then came our favourite Jimmy Cliff song of all time. Not reggae. Many Rivers To Cross is a masterpiece. You can’t believe that a tune with that melancholy perfection has not been around forever. In his original the organ leads off so deep and low and churchified, but then his voice comes in so high and pure that it’s always a shock. It was slightly overwhelmed by the backing but only because we were right at the front. The male and female backing vocalists were impassioned, Jimmy Cliff was impassioned. A magic moment. One I’ll never forget.
Jimmy then talked about ska and the band started the choppy rhythms, and he took us right back to his teenage hits King of Kings (1963) and Miss Jamaica (1962). I’ve never worried much about the ska / blubeat / reggae distinctions, let alone the further divisions, but it was great to really get that ska feel. My nearly two year old grandson’s normal greeting to me is a lion sound ‘Rargh!’ (he is a Leo and also loves lions in picture books) and he would have roared back at Jimmy Cliff in King of Kings with abandon. I think we all wanted to join in … and as Van Morrison sang, Listen to The Lion.
Wonderful World, Beautiful People was his 1969 hit record and again, everyone is singing along, everyone is waving. I hadn’t realized how much these songs meant to me, and there were so many of them tonight.
Jimmy Cliff’s band
He started Treat The Youths Right, another early 80s song (Special) and I think bits of other things came in, but I’m not sure. The ender was Reggae Music from Rebirth though I lost some of the storyline of this potted history lyric.
The encore was One More also from Rebirth. That has a fun closing arrangement where the band slip off leaving Jimmy and audience singing “One More!” then he goes off leaving the audience singing it and they all come back on and play it out.
Jimmy Cliff danced, moved, jumped and gyrated for a full 90 minutes flat out. He’s my age too. I was in awe. You won’t find a contemporary giving a show with this much … well, let’s take his LP title … Power and Glory. Unmissable. He played guitar in a couple of songs too – he’s a left-hander. Great band. The 5-string bass player did a couple of solos of Bakithi Kumalo quality. Great material too. My only regret was no Vietnam. I love that song.