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I love those moments when a new favorite emerges, when I’m held in rapture in dark of a hot theater on a summer night, when a string of songs I’ve never heard all seem like songs I know by heart.

My reaction is usually along the lines of where has this band been? But when it’s reggae legend and Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Famer Jimmy Cliff, the question becomes where the hell have I been?

It’s impossible to know everything about all music, but despite that futility I can’t help but try. And the longer and more intensely I follow, listen to and write about music,  those instances of joyfully knocked-down discovery become more rare, more precious, and if not more thrilling than those life-changing discoveries of youth, thrilling nonetheless, trading that visceral jolt for one that mixes nostalgia, humility and even a bit of wisdom.

I came to Jimmy Cliff this year simply because he has a new album, a heralded one that by all descriptions marries a return to his traditional reggae roots with some urgent new sounds, in the form of punk rock covers brought by his young disciple of a producer. In some ways, it recalls Johnny Cash’s collaboration with Rick Rubin across the American Recordings albums. It’s also, like Tom Waits’ 1999 masterpiece Mule Variations, an album that blessedly incorporates all of a great artist like Cliff’s strengths and drops the music in my lap at the precise moment I’m ready to hear it.

Prior to Rebirth, my knowledge of Jimmy Cliff was embarrassingly shallow: “I Can See Clearly Now” and “Many Rivers to Cross,” the first because it became an implausibly inescapable cover hit from the 1993 movie Cool Runnings; the second from its reference in the movie High Fidelity and covers by Harry Nilsson (and subsequently The Walkmen), and not actually from The Harder They Come.

So, a novice preparing for a show I knew was to really mean something, I dove into Rebirth and then The Harder They Come. Amazing records! Why’d I wait? I guess the only answer lies in the other hundreds of thousands of songs (is it really that many? who knows, maybe?) I’ve been exploring for 33 years. But, like I said, as I stood, head shaking and ears thrilling in the music Thursday at the Rialto Theatre, I can’t help but call Jimmy Cliff a favorite now.

On stage, he’s a regal presence, but from whatever kingdom celebrates fun as a priority. His moves on stage, leaps and thrusts and hops and all manner of strange shakes, are gloriously unique. His vocal command is nothing like I’d expect from a 64-year-old man. I’ve for years forgiven the old-man degradation of legendary performers like Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson and John Prine. But not only did Cliff not sound old at all, he’s a singer with soul, depth, charisma, wisdom and love.

In the live context, “One More” is a song every bit as inspirational as “You Can Get It If You Really Want.” “World Upside Down” and “Children’s Bread” are spiritual cousins to “Rivers of Babylon,” songs that call for humanity as a whole to heal itself, providing at once the list of grievances and the pathway to restoration.

Jimmy Cliff is every bit the sort of songwriter and singer than belongs on a continuity with Sam Cooke, Curtis Mayfield, Bill Withers. The leaders of the world don’t come from music and it’s a shame they don’t. There’s an honesty in everything Jimmy Cliff sings and it’s only right that he arrives prominently on the world stage once again with Rebirth at precisely the time I dive in. I’ve been listening to and celebrating Woody Guthrie all year (his centennial) and digging deeper into Joe Strummer and The Clash and taking in a more diverse batch of live music than ever.

I’ve read reviews that praise Rebirth as both vintage reggae and an instant classic. No doubt in my mind that it’s both. And I’ve read far more critical reviews and while I don’t mean to outright question the validity of any complaints, none have any bearing on my journey into the music and live performance of Jimmy Cliff. That’s the difficulty sometimes of reading and writing music criticism: even when valid and insightful, it’s always secondary to the music itself. And, to switch to an analogy, this Jimmy Cliff is a book I want to read on my own, no guidance, no Cliff’s notes. It’s the only way I can make the music really matter, really a thrill. And so, I jump in blind and find myself wanting more.

I visited my cousin in Denver earlier this summer. He’s long been a reggae fan, and in general a music fan who couldn’t give a flying shit what any critic thinks about anything. He mostly listens to BBC Radio 6 online, taking his cues from the individual DJs and their love of sharing the music they love. Over beers one night, he was raving about the Jimmy Cliff performance he’d just seen and his enthusiasm was in my mind throughout the Rialto performance. I wished we’d been able to catch the show together.

I’m glad to be writing this bit on Jimmy Cliff in blog form as opposed to any more formal type of a review. I love writing about music for publications, but sometimes working a piece of writing to its final, well-polished state isn’t the best approach. To “review” the show, I’d take a different tack. Here I can admit the holes in what I know, the uncertainties and not be bound to any broad proclamations. I loved my first Jimmy Cliff show and Rebirth I find myself grateful and thankful to simply hear and embrace it.

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Eric Swedlund is a writer, photographer and editor living in Tucson, Arizona. His music writing has appeared regularly in the Tucson Weekly, Phoenix New Times, East Bay Express, The Rumpus and Souciant Magazine.

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