Jimmy Cliff is reggae's Bruce Springsteen. His performances are joyful, high-energy marathons designed to keep their entire audience out of their seats for the rest of the night. If Cliff had any cynicism about playing his 40-year-old hits for a crowd of Ras Trents at his Tuesday show at Prospect Park, he hid them under a voice and body that exhibited more agility than can be expected of a man pushing retirement age.
Debuting this summer's Celebrate Brooklyn concert series, Cliff set an impossibly high bar, high-kicking his way out on stage to open with "You Can Get it if You Really Want." Leading with his best-known song, Cliff dared himself to follow his biggest hit for two hours and delivered, familiarizing the audience with every song through interaction, call-and-response and dance instruction that proved he was by far the greatest prancer in the bandshell.
A natural showman and crowd-pleaser, Cliff's setlist played like a Best of on shuffle. "Many Rivers to Cross," "Sitting in Limbo" and "Wonderful World, Beautiful People" ushered out the setting sun, and his version of "I Can See Clearly Now" freed itself from Cool Runnings. In his fifth decade as a performer, Cliff is still reimagining his biggest hits, bestowing us will a beautiful, all-drums take on "Rivers of Babylon" and updating "Vietnam" to include Afghanistan.
As an interpeter, he also took most of the cheese out of Cat Stevens' "Wild World" and surprised all of us by skanking through Rancid's "Ruby Soho" early in the set. Cliff's proto-ska rhythms (think of him as Chuck Berry to the Clash's Beach Boys) make him an underrated punk rock influence, but the master clearly got it, nailing Armstrong and Frederiksen's harmonies like a man who was born to sing and dance.
If you go to one reggae show in your entire life, make sure that it's Jimmy Cliff.