Rodriguez shows his human side
At Venue on Thursday, October 11
If you’ve seen the trailer but not the film—sorry, Rodriguez is still alive and well, relatively. He didn’t either self-immolate or put a bullet in his head back in the ‘70s, as isolated South Africans thought for a good few decades.
This rumoured fate is the central mystery in the film Searching for Sugar Man. An unexpected theatrical hit, Sugar Man tells the completely crazy and totally true story of Detroit-based acid-folkie Sixto Rodriguez, whose two albums from the early ‘70s became cult hits and eventually fuel for the anti-apartheid movement.
While those records—particularly the first, Cold Fact—sold like underground hot cakes half a world away (and tanked everywhere else), the man himself, blissfully ignorant to all this, retreated from music and became a day labourer in the construction business. Nobody’s too sure where the money from the album sales went (imagine!)
The film is still in theatres so, appearances on Letterman aside, Rodriguez is something of a walking-talking-singing spoiler at the moment. Let’s amend that. At “a solid 70-years-old,” as he told us at one point during a sold-out Venue show, Rodriguez doesn’t walk so well and had to be helped on and off stage by guitarist Wymond Miles.
He’s frail in other ways—the voice is basically unchanged, but Rodriguez sings and plays guitar too quietly for the rooms he’s suddenly filling in North America, and he’s happy to take his sweet time between songs. He also has a pretty good line in slightly Zen, old-guy jokes. “Wanna know the secret to life?” he asked, gnomically, at one point. “Keep breathing in and out.”
A much bigger quibble was with the audience, many of whom couldn’t, in classic Vancouver fashion, shut the fuck up for five minutes and actually listen to an artist others paid upward of $250 to see. And yes, your read that right. One South African lady drove in from Edmonton and, well, that scalper should be ashamed of himself.
At one point, the front half of the room turned around and angrily shushed the back half of the room, just in time for us to catch Rodriguez’s exquisitely pretty, solo version of “I Only Have Eyes for You”. Augmented by the appearance of stars on that otherwise butt-ugly LED display hanging behind the Venue’s stage, it was a lovely moment.
There were other lovely moments, mostly whenever the audience (those who were paying attention) would sing along with numbers like the peppy “I Wonder”, the searing ode to narcotics, “Sugar Man” (think politically-aware Donovan from the wrong-side-of-the-tracks), or the vicious garage rocker “Only Good for Conversation”. Aforementioned guitarist Miles, beneath a mesmerizing head of hair backcombed into the shape of a kiosk, nailed the acid-blazed guitar line from that particular song.
Ditto for the rest of the Fresh & Onlys, the SF four-piece backing Rodriguez for this tour. They flailed their way through the set when they appeared with him at Richard’s on Richards to a much smaller crowd of record collector-types in 2009, but this was a world apart from that, with special props going to bassist Shayde Sartin. He’s walking pretty credibly in the footsteps of Motown Funk Brother Bob Babbit, whose work on tracks like “Crucify Your Mind” from Cold Fact is a big reason those songs are so indelible.
In general, the band treated the music and the man with reverence. As for Rodriguez himself, it was nice to see the mischievous look he acquired when he told one member of the audience to, “Light it up, man.” Between that and his shakier moments, we got to see a more human version of the almost saintly figure from the film.