As a performer Jimmy Cliff has been as up-and-down as a bobbing reggae bass line over the years. The Jamaican-born singer-songwriter is one of the long-time stalwarts of reggae music, and as the star of the film "The Harder They Came" he was the one who introduced the music to many American rock fans. But several of his appearances here over the past decade have found him aloof and indifferent.
But Cliff was in fine form Wednesday night at the Greek Theatre, delivering a one-hour set that justified his stature. Animated and intense, the wiry Cliff moved confidently through a varied repertoire that for all its familiarity rang with freshness and immediacy.
When you have songs like his "Harder They Come" classics ("Johnny Too Bad," the soaring gospel ballad "Many Rivers to Cross") and his later "Trapped" (one of the few non-originals recorded by Bruce Springsteen) and can sing them in that powerully expressive, sweet and sour voice, it's hard to go wrong.
Cliff is on a co-headlining tour with Steel Pulse, whose closing set Wednesday was anticlimactic following Cliff's workout. The Birmingham, England band is a durable, middle-level reggae group whose occasional eloquence--as in "Save Black Music," a strong and timely attack on cultural piracy--is countered by an overall lack of musical inspiration.
Slick and glib, Steel Pulse was melodically drab and instrumentally anonymous at the Greek, leaving singer David Hinds' two-foot-high chimney of hair as the band's most distinctive feature.