Not exactly a stellar week for concerts, but a week that is fully redeemed by the godlike presence of JIMMY CLIFF opening for the Dave Matthews Band (opening for them?!? Slowly I turn, step by step, inch by inch . . .) on Friday night at the Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre.
Reggae pioneer Cliff is revered in Africa and South America (where he doesn't have to open for people who ought to be carrying his luggage), much as the rest of the world worships at the altar of Bob Marley, and with good reason: Cliff was among the real trailblazers of reggae, predating even the Great Bobbo, and his output, while lacking a long litany of worldwide hits, has been of a consistent quality that even Marley would be hard-pressed to match (of course, in fairness, Marley hasn't been around to get his 2 cents in for quite some time now).
Still, Cliff's newly released Shout for Freedom is a samba-influenced roots-reggae insta-classic that's as fine an effort as you're going to hear from any reggae artist at the turn of the century. In my book, Cliff's Grammy for Best Reggae Recording of 1999 is signed, sealed and delivered. Boasting all the elements that have made the 51-year-old Cliff one of the undeniable greats for more than 30 years, Shout oozes with soul-soothing spirituality (unlike most reggae artists, Cliff is a Muslim rather than a Rasta); dense layers of percolating, South American rhythm; songs so sweetly melodic they commit themselves to memory upon first hearing; and, of course, Cliff's honey-whipped, luxuriously rich vocals, which owe as much to American soul performers like Little Anthony Gourdine and Jackie Wilson as they do his Jamaican brethren.
Cliff initially emerged from Kingston as a ska performer for storied producer Leslie Kong in 1963. He was later taken under the wing of Island Records' Chris Blackwell, who brought Cliff to London and groomed him to be a pop star. It wasn't until 1969, though, that Cliff made any noise on a worldwide level, with the singles "Wonderful World, Beautiful People" and "Viet Nam," which the not yet boring or old Bob Dylan said was the best protest song he had ever heard at that time.
Cliff really became a factor as the murderous but magically charismatic Iuan in the 1973 film The Harder They Come. The film introduced Kingston's Trenchtown ghetto and the funky, syncopated music emanating from it to the rest of the world. It was a cult sensation. Cliff's title song, plus "Struggling Man," "You Can Get It if You Really Want It" and the lovely ballad "Many Rivers to Cross" all went on to become reggae standards (years later, the unfortunate UB40 had a hit with "Many Rivers to Cross"). Although he seemed poised for mega-stardom off the heels of The Harder They Come, it somehow never happened for Cliff. Marley wound up becoming something close to the sole beneficiary of reggae's popularity, with his controversial life and politically charged material grabbing all the headlines. Even as Cliff continued to release sporadic but magnificent albums like 1982's Special and 1990's Images, stateside audiences emitted a collective yawn and embraced whitewashed corporate reggae from acts like Big Mountain and warmed-over third-rate ska.
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So go catch Cliff Friday night and see the real thing. If Shout for Freedom is any indication, Cliff can still weave a spell and enrapture a listener with the spirit of what brought reggae to the fore in the first place. You might even want to stick around and see the walk-out act, that Matthews boy, once Cliff's set is done.
A couple of hot new archival blues releases: San Francisco-based Blind Pig Records has unearthed a pair of real beauts from the vault. MUDDY WATERS—The Lost Tapes offers cuts from a pair of 1971 concerts that present this kingly figure at his finest. Backed by perhaps the best group of musicians to grace his stage since the classic '50s lineups, Waters is joined by George "Harmonica" Smith, pianist Pinetop Perkins, guitarists Sammy Lawhorn and Pee Wee Madison, drummer Willie "Big Eyes" Smith, and bassist Calvin "Fuzz" Jones. Waters is in rare form, with his slide guitar playing wildly distorted and way out in front and his vocals pushed out with youthful, urgent conviction. Meanwhile, his band knows just when to lay back on a sophisticated slow groove ("She's 19 Years Old") and when to make like bomb-totin' blues terrorists ("Mannish Boy"). Don't miss Waters' lewd, politically incorrect spoken introduction to "She's 19 Years Old," or the bonus video files you can play on your computer —a taxicab interview with Waters that has Big Mama Thornton sitting in the back seat and a clip of an impressively Afroed Muddy tearing it up on a particularly intense version of "Long Distance Call." Don't let the atrocious, cheesy cover art scare you away—The Lost Tapes is a most welcome addition to the Waters catalog.
A particular revelation is PEE WEE CRAYTON's Early Hour Blues, which is also on Blind Pig. Crayton was a relatively obscure LA bluesman, a singing, guitar-picking contemporary of T-Bone Walker, whose biggest hits were released in the late '40s and early '50s. By the time of these recordings, made in the early '80s with Riverside-based blues harp master Rod Piazza producing, Crayton was something of a forgotten figure on the scene. And as the astonishing quality of these last tracks demonstrates, it's really a shame that Crayton fell through the cracks before passing away in 1985, a year after these sessions were completed. Throughout, Crayton's guitar tone snarls and threatens, tuff as a pissed-off wolverine, while his vocals remain warm and sophisticated with jazz-like phrasings. Piazza uses horn-heavy bands and thick production values to complement his old friend's sound, but these tracks never sound overproduced or pandering. Perhaps with this superb release, Crayton can finally "assume his place in the pantheon he rightly considered his due," as it says in the liner notes.
Jimmy Cliff opens for the Dave Matthews Band at the Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre, 8808 Irvine Center Dr., Irvine, (949) 855-8096. Fri., 8 p.m. $32.50.