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POP REVIEW : Jimmy Cliff Hanging on Verge of Vegas

August 24, 1989|DON SNOWDEN

Jimmy Cliff, headlining the Palace in Los Angeles on Tuesday, found a novel way around his perennial dilemma of dealing with an audience primed to hear the hits from "The Harder They Come." He did sing three tunes from the 1972 movie that made him reggae's first international star, but two of them--"By the Rivers of Babylon" and "Johnny Too Bad"--were Jamaican hits for other artists.

Cliff is currently without an American label, and his nearly two-hour set before a half-filled house on the first of his two nights at the Palace didn't seem likely to change that situation. (Cliff's show tonight at the Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach is sold out.)

Following an effective opening medley that found Cliff backed only by keyboards, bass and bongos, the arrangements became a hodgepodge of mismatched elements while the lyrics tackled serious subjects in puerile, programmatic fashion.

Cliff's athletic stage presence was initially appealing, but his performance progressively took on the something-for-everyone cast of a reggae artist headed for a Vegas-style nightclub circuit. The high point was the audience's unprompted reply to Cliff's melismatic wailing at the end of one song. Cliff seemed genuinely surprised at the response--it was one of those rare moments of uncontrived audience participation that so many performers strive to achieve with tired routines.

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