It was supposed to be a coronation.
Rodriguez, the Mexican American singer-songwriter who released two critically praised but commercially stillborn albums in the early ‘70s, was rescued from near obscurity this year with the acclaimed documentary “Searching for Sugar Man.” (The title is from one of his songs.)
The film movingly details how his politically charged music went nowhere in America, but in South Africa made him an artist with the political import and cultural standing of Bob Dylan. It reignited interest in Sixto Diaz Rodriguez, who had quietly settled back in his birthplace of Detroit, working construction and odd jobs when his music career went nowhere.
Friday night, a sold-out El Rey audience was almost religiously reverent as the 70-year-old musician, clad all in black and wearing a hat whose brim shaded his sunglass-covered eyes, was gingerly led onstage by a band member, and tentatively stood at the mike as the crowd roared their appreciation.
His fragility was startling, but also served to further endear him to folks already nestled in the palm of his hand. But he stopped the night’s first song “You’d Like to Admit It” just a few bars in to quietly tune his guitar as the band and audience waited. It was a false start that set the pace for the rest of the evening.
The muddy sound mix often swallowed Rodriguez’s vocals and guitar beneath the too-loud backing band (San Francisco’s the Fresh & Onlys, talented but ill-served by El Rey’s sound system). And momentum never built as almost every song’s ending was followed by a stretch of time to allow Rodriguez to tune his guitar and fiddle with the sound.
Still, there were moments that were exhilarating. The fifth number of the night, the crisply penned “I Wonder” was a crowd favorite and received prominent placement in the film and it was in this number that the singer found a strong, captivating voice. “I wonder how many times you’ve been had / And I wonder how many plans have gone bad / I wonder how many times you’ve had sex,” he crooned, and then wryly quipped at the song’s end, “I wonder, but I don’t really wanna know.”
Mid-set performances of the biting “Rich Folks” and “Sugar Man” were among the night’s highlights, as the band nimbly adjusted to the sonic limitations of the space and found their groove behind their front man.
Unfortunately, the air was sucked out of the room by an ill-advised medley of rock ‘n’ roll classics (“Blue Suede Shoes,” “Good Golly Miss Molly,” and “Shake, Rattle & Roll” among them) that was indulgent and seemed ill-rehearsed.
Part of the problem was Rodriguez’s slightly nasal singing tone. It contours beautifully around his own lyrics, injecting a lingering bite beneath his cool detachment. (That tone also underscores the Dylan similarities, though it’s Rodriguez’s poetically journalistic writing style that really earns the comparison.) That same tone, however, seemed enervated when attached to the classics.
Still, the medley served a crucial function for the night.
One reason Rodriguez resonates with old and new fans alike now is that his story, as outlined in the documentary -- and as it’s playing out following the success of the film -- taps into our desire to believe that true talent will eventually win out, that hard work does pay and that good guys eventually get their due. Not much in the culture affirms any of that right now, particularly for people of color.
Rodriguez, who is almost preternaturally humble – beguilingly so – has been turned into something of a shaman figure by his most devoted followers, and it’s an unfair, cumbersome projection for him to carry.
One of the silver linings of his performance of the classics medley was to underscore the ways in which even our most insightful, philosophical of performers are often influenced by pure pop, by escapist, good-time fare. His renditions of the rock standards, while wobbly, served to humanize him. And so did his charmingly corny, old-school Vegas-style banter.
“You know the two words that are the secret to a successful relationship?” he asked at one point. The audience fell silent as though they were about to receive wisdom from a prophet freshly descended from a mountaintop.
Rodriguez grinned as he supplied the answer: “Yes, dear.”
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