Jimmy Cliff unleashed his reggae revival on a surprisingly boisterous Denver Botanic Gardens crowd Monday night. The reggae evangelist rolled through his trailblazing hits while bounding across the stage, belying his 66 years with sweat-slinging aplomb.
Backed by an eight-piece, yellow-shirted collective, the pioneering Cliff actually lured the typically staid Botanic Gardens crowd into a grassy boogie. The stagefront was jammed with dancers. Hundreds of arms waved in unison. Cliff even had the crowd chanting “Irie” at several points.
Warmed up with Zach Deputy’s lively looping, world-beat calypso funk, the sold-out crowd embraced Cliff and he returned the warmth with the exuberance of an aerobics instructor, extolling everyone to join in his celebration. The timeless “You Can Get It If You Really Want,” kicked off the dance party, spilling into “Rebel Rebel” off Cliff’s 2012 Grammy-winning “Rebirth.”
Even with two talented back-up singers, Cliff dominated the vocals, serenading the crowd with his Jamaican patios. His hymnal “Many Rivers To Cross” carried the same emotional message of toil and perseverance as it did when he wrote it in 1969. His whispering rendition of Cat Stevens’ “Wild World” thrilled the Baby Boomer audience. His twist on the venerable protest song “Vietnam” – changed in recent years to “Afghanistan” – likely conjured distinct memories for the children of the 60s, with its seething attack on endless war.
Fiery brass and a pair of organ players kept the music roiling, with a groovy crescendo in “Harder They Come” that culled the ever-lounging, always-snacking gardens crowd to its feet. Dozens of visitors strolled the gardens as Cliff played, relishing the glassy treasures of Dale Chihuly tucked into shimmering ponds and leafy lanes. But the gathering was ultimately enthralled by the legend on stage, whose all-encompassing performance swerved from old to new, gentle to rowdy and angry to ecstatic. There was little to miss as Cliff marched himself off stage to the chanting beat of “One More.”
Jason Blevins is a strange dancer, but that has never stopped him.