Reggae royal Jimmy Cliff delivers indomitably positive ACL address

Jimmy Cliff performs at the 2014 Austin City Limits music festival. Photo by Ashley Landis, For American-Statesman.
Jimmy Cliff performs at the 2014 Austin City Limits music festival. Photo by Ashley Landis, For American-Statesman.

Shout out to the area man with the white-guy dreads, Orioles jersey, and Imperial beer-dispensing backpack. I pointed out that his beers were falling out left and right, and he was exceedingly mellow, “It’s the bag that gives.” Another Jimmy Cliff enthusiast toward the front barked “Jimmy!” during every lull.

If you’re the type of Caucasian male that likes calling strangers “brother,” the unofficial reggae secretary of state’s Friday Austin City Limits Festival set was essential real estate.

But Cliff, wearing shiny gold (silk, probably) garments, proved more transcendent royal than genre cliche-affirming vessel for gnarly marijuana highs. Opening with “Rivers of Babylon,” Cliff sat on a folding chair as eight percussionists in matching orange tees thumped away. The unit morphed into a full-service ensemble, complete with stab-landing horns, by song No. 2.

The 66-year-old reggae icon is an industry grandfather. Some resume-building facts: he’s the only living musician with an Order of Merit (state-sanctioned Jamaican honor for achievement in the arts); Rock and Roll Hall of Fame class of 2010; contributed work to the “Cool Runnings” soundtrack.

More importantly his present live show is clean and arresting. Cliff plus an organ and backup pipes is Kingston heartache and a premier soul balladeer effort. He gets rebellious about Afghanistan and lands blows. His cover of Cat Stevens’s “Wild World” kinda rules. Hits like “The Harder They Come” and “Wonderful World, Beautiful People” pulse with big vocals and young man exuberance.

It’s the kind of leg-stretching, finger-pointing gig that makes you want to cross your legs and camp out along the Honda Stage’s rails through OutKast.

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