It was a strange, frustrating, maddening, deeply moving and, in the end, celebratory and deeply affecting career for Sixto Rodriguez. By the time he died last week he had achieved both a degree of fame and a significant level of respect, which hopefully went some way to making up for the decades where he wondered if anyone remembered him, let alone wanted to hear him again.
The mythology of the film Searching For Sugarman helped return him to attention, albeit without mentioning a few aspects of his story that didn’t fit with the filmmakers’ central thesis. Among them was the fact that while he was criminally ignored in his home country and lauded among the anti-apartheid South Africans, he had had a reasonable amount of support in Australia in the 1970s and toured here twice.
By the time of this 2014 show, Rodriguez had been back to Australia since the film’s release, and would come again, but here was a reminder that myth and affection won’t always make up for the ravages of time or odd choices.
Opera House, October 23, 2014
RECENTLY, A READER UPBRAIDED ME for not mentioning the strong crowd response at a concert, on the basis that that, more than any critical criteria, was the real measure of a show’s success. So let it be noted that the audience on this night rose for a standing ovation as Sixto Rodriguez came to the stage, gave him two more standing ovations, at the end of the set and the encore, and cheered mightily when he removed a large black visor (used to protect his damaged eyes from the lights) and replaced it with a wide brim top hat.
That his voice is less than it was and more often than not seemed delivered in a flat tone that lacked the passion of the almost-lost recordings which had brought us here, didn’t really matter. Adoration – for his songs, yes, but also for his survival and, you suspect, some self-congratulation for our continued, or recently discovered, interest - was a given. As my friend observed, he could have sung Rubber Ducky and still garnered an ovation.
They all but whistled appreciatively the rare and just-below-a-whisper comments which, for the first half of the show, were about the lead being loose into his guitar and, for the second half, were small if cryptic acknowledgements of aforementioned crowd enthusiasm.
And when mostly he said nothing at all, some repeatedly – for buffoons abhor a vacuum much more than nature does - filled the air with increasingly frantic cries: "we love you Rodriguez”; "play .. (insert name of favoured song not yet played)”; "I loved you in the ‘80s" (my favourite of the night). And, when even those proved too complex for some, simply "Rodriguez".
I would have given a lot more love than the polite acknowledgment they received to his excellent band which offered both grit (some searing guitar and rugged lower end drums) and fluidity (a groove-oriented bassplayer who was one of the best parts of the night) and yet didn’t trample on his presence now that the sound imbalance issues reported from Tuesday night were sorted.
I would have given far less love to a surfeit of covers such as Chuck Berry’s Lucille and one of Frank Sinatra’s favourites, I’m Gonna Live Til I Die, to Fever and Blue Suede Shoes. The man has had merely two albums in his, so far only, incarnation as a recording artist in the early ‘70s, it wouldn’t hurt to play all of those minor classics rather than minor cabaret would it?
But perversely it was in those covers that Rodriguez most often came to life vocally, his voice louder, stronger and vibrant. Perhaps this was an indication that the flat tone in his originals reflects tiredness with repeating his tropes even if we are still eager for them.
Maybe he is getting more out of revisiting his youth than we are revisiting his early adulthood. Even with a frankly awful I Only Have Eyes For You that we need never talk about again but which, you’ll not be surprised to hear, earned rapturous applause.