By Mike Finkelstein
Sometimes life just dishes up a better story than we might actually invent for ourselves. And often the goodness isn’t all that obvious. For Sixto Rodriguez the path to popularity has certainly not been conventional. His musical career was by all rights dead in the water in the early 70’s. But strange events passed and he benefited from several unlikely yet heartwarming surges in popularity over the last 25 or so years in Australia and South Africa. All of this has been skillfully documented in the Academy Award winning documentary about his legend called Searching for Sugar Man. This recognition is a big reason why he was able to largely fill the Greek Theater Friday, on a classic spring evening.
While the Greek was not exactly packed it was mostly filled throughout, surrounding some scattered bare patches. Friday night was not at all a quickly paced show, but the audience was subdued and enthusiastically loyal.
If one term could describe the festivities Friday night it would have to be “laid back.” Rodriguez has a laid back manner onstage, the show moved at a very laid back pace, and the audience was laid back enough to go with the noticeably extended pauses between songs. But when it was time to play music, his voice was in great form and though they were short, the songs satisfied.
Decked out in a top hat, black suit, long 70’s styled hair, and dark Roy Orbison-esque glasses, Rodriguez was escorted onstage in the hand of his daughter, Regan. It was a slow and careful walk they made, as he suffers from a progressive case of glaucoma and must be very careful when on foot.
From the start the delivery was calm, composed, low key, and once the song was underway, very focused. His guitar was one of those very nice thin-bodied acoustic electrics and his right hand was a spidery blur of motion as he strummed it. This looked a bit unorthodox, but trying something new is often how one finds their style.
It has always been Rodriguez’ voice that draws me in. Warm, rich, very expressive. It is beautifully haunting. Part of the Rodriguez legend is that he was a vanished persona to so many who loved to listen to him, just untraceable for many years. That his voice could be as golden only added to mystique.
Vocally, a few comparisons are unavoidable if only as reference points. There’s no way around the fact that he evokes early Dylan, but without the underlying angst and frenzy. His voice is a richer, more composed instrument but, like early Dylan, Rodriguez can also turn one eloquent phrase after another.
There is also the contemplative detachment in his voice that you can hear in Nick Drake’s work. In terms of simple, catchy, arrangements and his delivery, I heard a nod or two to early Leonard Cohen in songs like “Crucify Your Mind.” But the comparison really doesn’t go past the point of suggestion or similarity. Rodriguez’ voice shapes each tune into his style and that is the calling card of any successful popular artist.
In songs like “This Is Not A Song, It’s An Outburst: Or, The Establishment blues,” “I Wonder,” “Inner City blues,” and “Sugar Man,” Rodriguez comes across with his own style. The songs are quite short, but they are unmistakably his. He often has his chords descend chromatically and then bounce to the next idea. The progressions lend themselves to concise melodic embellishments, and there were plenty of tasty embellishments from his three-piece band on Friday. But at the top of the mix, it’s his voice that holds our attention. Sitting there with my eyes closed I noticed that his voice sounds just as it did in the movie and on the recordings from 40 years ago. That’s a remarkable vocal status at the age of 71.
Since live music is a sharing of musical perspectives, performers love to cover songs that carry special meaning to them. Listening to these usually gives an audience a nice little peek into the direction an artist may be approaching from. On Friday, Rodriguez covered Little Richard’s “Lucille,” and Carl Perkin’s “Blue Suede shoes,” … both of which he would have grown up hearing on the radio. Both are tunes we would think of as uptempo rockers. I’ve never heard a slower, folkier version of either of these songs. And really, it wasn’t surprising to hear them done this way. In fact, it was novel and entertaining. They also went on to cover Frank Sinatra’s “I’m Gonna Live ‘Til I Die,” with the same approach.
At the end of the set and after the encore, as well, Rodriguez let us know that it had been an honor, a pleasure, and a privilege to play for us at the Greek. In many ways the pleasure was just as much ours.
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